Dems Seek to Abolish Virginia Death Penalty

Slippery slope: Abolish the death penalty…. eliminate life sentences… empty the prisons.

by Hans Bader

Virginia’s governor and the head of a key legislative subcommittee are backing legislation to abolish the death penalty in Virginia and overturn existing death sentences.

In theory, the death penalty could save lives by deterring people from committing murder. Several studies found that it deters killings of innocent people. As the Associated Press noted in 2007, “Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five, and 14).”

The death penalty also can prevent additional murders by prisoners serving life sentences. Being executed is the only thing that stops some murderers from killing again. Consider the case of Robert Gleason. He had been sentenced to life in prison without parole for murder. He beat his cellmate to death while in Wallens Ridge State Prison. Afterwards, while awaiting trial on that charge at Red Onion State Prison, he murdered another inmate. He then declared that he would continue killing until the state executed him. He was sentenced to death and moved to Sussex I State Prison, home of death row.

As a Bacon’s Rebellion blogger notes, he once bragged to prison officials that he could have killed prison guards had he wished to and provided credible evidence that he could have carried out his plans. But any additional killings became impossible when he was executed in January 2013.

But in practice, there just aren’t going to be many executions in contemporary Virginia, so any deterrent effect of retaining the death penalty will be limited. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch notes, “[N]o one has been sentenced to death in Virginia since 2011, or executed since 2017. And the state’s death row, which once hovered around 50, is now down to two men, who will have their sentences changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole if the bill becomes law.”

Executions have become exceedingly rare in recent years in Virginia, as a growing minority of Virginians have become skeptical of the death penalty. Juries are unlikely to impose the death penalty in all but the most extreme cases, if even a few jurors have misgivings. As Wikipedia notes, in Virginia, “When the prosecution seeks the death penalty, the sentence is decided by the jury and must be unanimous. In case of a hung jury during the penalty phase of the trial, a life sentence is issued, even if a single juror opposed death (there is no retrial).”

Still, I strongly oppose abolishing the death penalty because once it is abolished, many of its critics will move on to attacking life sentences without parole, whose abolition would gravely harm public safety.

The death penalty is a critical buffer zone around life without parole, helping insulate it from challenge. As long as the death penalty was regularly carried out, death penalty opponents would point to life without parole as a better alternative. But after its frequency waned, some death penalty opponents in the U.S. began attacking life without parole as well.

Similarly, after the death penalty was abolished in Europe, many activists who had once campaigned against the death penalty shifted to attacking life without parole (critics of life without parole call it a “hidden death sentence.”) The result was that courts began to strike down life without parole — such as when a European Court in 2013 overturned Britain’s practice of imposing life without parole on the worst murderers who killed again after being released from prison for a prior murder. The court claimed life without parole is “inhuman and degrading” and thus violated the EU Charter.

As Ed Morrissey notes, “Life without parole developed — at least in the U.S. — as a means to give the state an option to the death penalty.”

But as soon as the death penalty is abolished, life without parole is likely to come under assault. There is already legislation pending in Virginia that would lower the age for geriatric release to age 50 for many inmates, effectively allowing even some murderers serving life “without parole” to get parole in all but name. It passed the state Senate last year on a 21-to-19 vote, and is now sitting in the House of Delegates.

Soon after the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional for 16 and 17-year-olds, it declared life without parole unconstitutional for all but the worst teenage killers. Those rulings contributed to the Virginia legislature making all teenage criminals — even serial killers — eligible for parole after at most 20 years (even though about 10% of all murders have historically been committed by juveniles, and once released, juvenile murderers often commit more violent crimes, including more murders).

By releasing violent criminals earlier, these expansions of parole will result in more killings of innocent people. Studies show that longer prison sentences deter crimes from being committed, saving innocent lives. For example, California’s violent crime rate fell due to the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which increased sentences for repeat offenders who commit murder, rape, and robbery.

Hans Bader is an attorney living in Northern Virginia. This column is republished with permission from Liberty Unyielding.

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6 responses to “Dems Seek to Abolish Virginia Death Penalty

  1. Why do murderers deserve consideration? I’m for victims’ rights.
    Where will these folks be when they get out? In the lower income areas, mostly minority, and those folks deserve to be protected.

  2. Problem is Hans, that the word heinous is associated with the murder in question and not the murderer. Some bastard bludgeons their spouse with a hammer, cuts up the body, packs the pieces in suitcases, and drops them in the Bay, and the crime is heinous, even if nothing but the first blow counts to the murder. The rest being desecration of a corpse.

    Given the circumstances between the victim and perpetrator, it is virtually unlikely that the killer will kill again. They had an itch. Just keeping them from marrying again solves the problem.

    That’s anecdotally 70% of murders right there.

  3. This post is a conglomeration of misleading assertions coupled to subjects that are irrelevant.

    First of all, the author raises the familiar claim that the death penalty has a deterrent value. The deterrent value of the death penalty has been debated for decades. For every study he can cite saying the death penalty serves as a deterrent, I can cite one that says it does not. In an attempt to referee this debate, the National Research Council reported, “The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates.” https://www.nap.edu/read/13363/chapter/1

    Next the author says that the threat of the death penalty will prevent violent inmates from committing murder in prison. For evidence, he offers the case of Robert Gleason. The problem with this example is that the death penalty did not deter Gleason. He murdered twice while incarcerated and said he would keep killing until executed. Rather than being a deterrent, the possibility of a death penalty was an incentive for Gleason. There has been some suggestion that he wanted to be executed because life in prison would be intolerable.

    After this argument, the author drags a red herring into the discussion by contending that after opponents of the death penalty succeed in abolishing the death penalty, they will go after life without parole. For evidence for this claim, he turns to the European Court and the EU Charter. Obviously, these precedents do not apply to the United States. As for the experience in this country, of the 22 states that do not have a death penalty, all but Alaska have provisions for life without parole.

    He tries to bolster his argument about life without parole by pivoting to pending legislation dealing with conditional release for geriatric offenders. That does not work, either. The law on “geriatric parole” explicitly exempts offenders convicted of a Class 1 felony (those with life without parole that Bader is worried about) from being considered for release. The pending legislation proposes no changes to that provision of the law.

    Finally, he gets to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions outlawing capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles and curtailing sentencing juveniles to life without parole. The circumstances surrounding violent crimes committed by juveniles are significantly different than similar crimes committed by adults. Bader assumes, without any logical basis, that, because the General Assembly enabled all persons convicted for offenses committed while a juvenile to be eligible for consideration for parole after 20 years, the legislature would be amenable to abolishing life without parole for all offenders.

    • Yes, thank you. Bader needs some “feedback” on some of these canards.

    • The law on geriatric parole only exempts a MINORITY of murderers from release based on the nature of their murder, as Bader has previously pointed out at this blog. Most premeditated murders committed with malice are NOT Class 1 felonies, and thus, most murderers qualify for the proposed law on geriatric parole when they reach the specified age.

      “In Virginia, ‘First-degree murder is classified as a Class 2 felony,’ notes a web site about state laws.” (Findlaw).

      Not a Class 1 felony, which only applies to specified kinds of murders, such as killing a police officer or small child.

      So it’s inaccurate to say that “those with life without parole that Bader is worried about” couldn’t be given geriatric release at age 50. Some of them could.

      • You are correct that someone convicted of a Class 2 felony with a life sentence could be eligible for geriatric release. But Mr. Bader is concerned with folks who have committed a crime to which the death penalty is applicable, which is a Class 1 felony. Anyone convicted of a Class 2 felony would not be subject to the death penalty.

        A Class 1 felony is punishable by death or by life imprisonment. One of Mr. Bader’s concerns is the “death penalty is a critical buffer zone around life without parole, helping insulate it from challenge” and he argues “as soon as the death penalty is abolished, life without parole is likely to come under assault.” Therefore, it is obvious that he is concerned that, somehow, offenders convicted of crimes for which they could have received the death penalty (Class 1 felonies) are going to get released earlier due to expanding the geriatric parole criteria.

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