RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/WFXR) — On Friday, faith leaders gathered across Virginia to show support for a bill that could abolish the death penalty.
Prayer vigils were held in Richmond, Alexandria, Danville, Roanoke, and the Tidewater region on Friday, Jan. 22, at places where executions have taken place in the past.
“Based on our understanding of redemption, love and mercy, we reject retribution or collective vengeance as a reason to take a human life,” said Pastor Duane Hardy of Seven Pines Baptist Church.
Speakers highlighted historic ties between capital punishment and racial oppression by reading the names of people who were the victims of lynching.
“It is a flawed public policy. It has its roots in slavery and lynching here in the Commonwealth. We know it has disproportionately impacted the African American community so it is really a racial justice issue,” said Rev. LaKeisha Cook, a criminal justice organizer with the Virginia Interfaith Center.
In Richmond, the vigil was held on the land that used to host the Virginia State Penitentiary, where executions took place between 1908 and 1990.
“Only on our Virginia Civil War battlefields were there more killings than in this field right behind us,” said Dale Brumfield, representing Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
The vigil came days after a bill banning the death penalty in Virginia won a majority in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Its next stop is Senate Finance.
The legislation sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) would make the state’s maximum punishment life without parole. If it passes, Surovell said those already on death row would have their sentences converted to that maximum and they wouldn’t be able to benefit from earned sentence credits for good behavior.
Gubernatorial hopeful Del. Lee Carter (D- Manassas) introduced a similar bill in the House of Delegates.
Ahead of his State of the Commonwealth Address last week, Gov. Ralph Northam endorsed the prohibition.
With 113 executions since 1976, Surovell said Virginia is second only to Texas in its use of capital punishment.
Supporters of the ban generally argue that the death penalty is immoral, extraordinarily expensive and has led to the killing of men later proved innocent.
Opponents fear removing the option could make it difficult to ensure the worst criminals are held accountable. As the Democratic majority eyes repealing mandatory minimum sentences, Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) raised concern that eliminating life without parole could be next.
“Life no longer means life,” said Virginia State Police Association Executive Director Wayne Huggins.
Huggins is among those calling for an exemption for capital murder of law enforcement.
Senators also heard from multiple family members of fallen officers on this point. Angela Kyle said the execution of her dad’s murderer gave her peace of mind.
“An amazing load went off my shoulders, my nightmares stopped,” Kyle said.
Widow Michelle Dermyer called the effort to end the death penalty a slap in the face.
“Eliminating the death penalty cheapens murder. An executed death sentence absolutely guarantees the killer will never kill again,” she said.