Panel won’t restrict death penalty in Virginia

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

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 10-3 Jan. 28 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 two Catholic dioceses of Virginia - Arlington and Richmond ¬ - gathered in the capital city 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 last several years, but none have made it out of committee hearings. This year's bill would have made DNA evidence or a filmed confession requirements for instituting the death penalty, precautions aimed at eliminating the risk of executing innocent people.

Since 1973, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, sometimes due to withheld evidence being revealed or investigation of the crime scene revisited. Virginia has exonerated one in that time, but 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."

In 2013, according to deathpenaltyinfo.org, a bill came before the assembly that would "require secrecy around the methods and carrying out of executions," which was not passed, and similarly in 2012, HB502 (Gilbert, R-Page) would have held "non-shooters" to be eligible for the death penalty if they were ruled to be "an accessory to murder and exhibited an intent to kill."

Virginia was the first state in America to execute an offender. Capt. George Kendall was put to death in the Jamestown colony in 1608 after being found guilty of spying for Spain.

Although Virginia has not carried out an execution since 2013, it is second only to Texas in the number of executions that have been carried out.

With a firmly pro-life stance, the VCC is morally opposed to the death penalty and advocates for compromise, such as life in prison without the possibility of parole for those who are found guilty of heinous crimes. Other 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 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.

Find out more

To learn more about the death penalty state by state, go to deathpenaltyinfo.org. For more information on the 2015 Virginia General Assembly session, including bill tracking, go to lis.virginia.gov and richmondsunlight.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015