The Democratic-led state Senate passed the measure by a party line vote of 21-17. The bill is now expected to move to the House of Delegates, where Democrats also hold the majority.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, supports ending the death penalty and said Wednesday in a statement that he looks forward to signing the bill into law.
In pushing for the measure, Democrats cited the racial disparities in the application of capital punishment. Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, the bill’s chief sponsor, pointed to exonerations of inmates on death row and instances of innocent people convicted and executed.
“I cannot think of anything that’s more awful, unspeakable and wrong for a government to do than to use its power to execute somebody who didn’t commit the crime they’re accused of,” he said during debate on the Senate floor before the vote. “The problem with capital punishment is that once it’s inflicted you can’t take it back — can’t be corrected.”
Objecting to the bill, some Republican state senators said they oppose the death penalty, but wanted the bill amended to include a mandatory minimum life sentence for aggravated murder without the possibility of parole.
“We want to work with you on this. This could’ve been coming out today as a bipartisan effort to end the death penalty in Virginia — instead it’s a party-line effort,” said GOP state Sen. William Stanley, who was an original co-sponsor of the bill but ultimately did not vote on the bill.
The Senate rejected Stanley’s amendment and another GOP-backed amendment from the Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment that would allow the death penalty to be applied in cases of capital murder.
Other Republican state senators argued that Virginia has the responsibility to preserve capital punishment for the most heinous crimes.
GOP state Sen. Mark Obenshain argued that the death penalty “should be reserved for only the worst of the worst cases” and that there are “clearly cases in which capital punishment is an appropriate sanction.”
“I believe in the rare application of capital punishment,” Obenshain said. “I do not believe that this bill is an appropriate response to misapplications of capital punishment of decades and centuries past.”
In an emotional moment, Democratic state Sen. Janet Howell spoke of her prior support for the death penalty but how the murder of her father-in-law changed her position.
“As I’m sure you can imagine that tore us apart then and it still has a huge hole in our hearts,” she said, recounting how her family was divided over the death penalty as they dealt with their trauma.
“I don’t buy the idea that we would support the death penalty for the benefit of victims’ families. It doesn’t work that way, trust me, it doesn’t work that way,” she said, urging support of the bill. “If you’re thinking about the victims’ families, think really deeply because it’s a very complicated situation.”
There are currently two inmates on death row in Virginia as of December 2020, according to Virginia’s Department of Corrections. The Senate bill would change their sentences to life in prison.
After the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, effectively lifting a moratorium, Virginia has carried out 113 executions — second only to Texas — since 1982. Virgina last executed a person in 2017.
The debate over capital punishment has been longstanding, with advocates arguing it’s a deterrent against serious crime and that justice is served for the victims or victims’ families. Opponents, however, point to the racial disparities of death row inmates, the financial costs, and wrongful convictions.
CNN’s Christina Carrega and Ariane de Vogue contributed to this report.