Panel won’t restrict death penalty

To the dismay of Catholic advocacy groups, a Senate committee has voted against a bill to restrict capital punishment in Virginia.

By Margo Maier

To the dismay of Catholic advocacy groups, a Senate committee has voted against a bill to restrict capital punishment in Virginia. The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 10-3 last Wednesday to “pass by indefinitely” Senate Bill 1296, sponsored by Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond. The bill would have allowed the death sentence only when the conviction was supported by DNA or other biological evidence or when a video “conclusively connects the defendant to the offense” – for example, with a “voluntary interrogation and confession.”

The next day, members of the Virginia Catholic Charter, representing church members from throughout the state, gathered in Richmond for Catholic Advocacy Day, an annual summit addressing key issues before the General Assembly.

Measures to reform Virginia’s death penalty have come before the assembly over the past several years, but none have made it out of committee. SB 1296 was aimed at reducing the risk of executing innocent people.

Since 1973, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, sometimes because crucial evidence had been withheld. Virginia has exonerated one in that time and approved clemency for another eight inmates. The state’s procedure for issuing a death sentence has come under scrutiny from advocacy groups such as Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. The organization says capital punishment is unfair because of racial bias, problems with evidence, and other issues.

Michael Stone, executive director of the group, saw McEachin’s bill “as a symbolic measure that we hope will open up a dialog among legislators.”

“There was no real hope of getting the bill through this session because of the political makeup of the assembly, but the fact that it was introduced to the committee by McEachin is still a good sign for us,” Stone said. “SB 1296 was an attempt to move Virginia to where Maryland was before it abolished the death penalty.”

Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, Virginia has carried out 110 executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The state has not executed anyone since 2013.

With a firmly pro-life stance, the Catholic church of Virginia is morally opposed to the death penalty and advocates for alternative measures, such as life in prison without the possibility of parole for those found guilty of heinous crimes. The Virginia Catholic Conference, the public policy group that organizes Catholic Advocacy Day every year at the capital, shares views on social justice that resonate with many concerned citizens outside the realm of religion.

The conference’s priorities include preventing wrongful convictions, restoring voting rights to non-violent felons, expanding Medicaid (the health insurance program for low-income families), passing the Virginia DREAM act (which would allow certain illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition to attend college in Virginia) and closing the “gun-show loophole,” which exempts private firearms sales from criminal background checks.

How They Voted

How the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted Wednesday on SB 1296 (Death sentence; requirements for imposition).

01/28/15 Senate: Passed by indefinitely in Courts of Justice (10-Y 3-N 1-A)

  • YEAS – Norment, Obenshain, Saslaw, McDougle, Stuart, Vogel, Stanley, Reeves, Garrett, Chafin – 10.
  • NAYS – Howell, Puller, McEachin – 3.
  • **ABSTENTIONS **- Edwards – 1.

Photo by: AudioVision – Public Radio, Visualized

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