In legislative votes 1,600 miles apart on January 30, 2020, state senates in Colorado and Virginia took historic steps toward abolishing or reforming their state death-penalty systems.

After hours of emotional debate on the floor of the state senate in Denver, Colorado senators voted 19-15 to repeal the state’s death-penalty statute. Hours earlier, in Richmond, the Virginia state senate passed a bill that would bar the death penalty for individuals who were suffering from severe mental illness at the time of the crime. The mental illness bill passed with strong bipartisan support by a vote of 32-7.

The Colorado vote on the senate’s “second consideration” of the bill was considered the most critical procedural step in legislative efforts to repeal the death penalty. The bill, which would abolish capital punishment for all cases brought to trial on or after July 1, 2020, still requires formal passage on third consideration January 31 before it can advance to the state House of Representatives. However, newspaper reports and the bill’s supporters say that step is largely a formality.

A previous abolition bill was withdrawn without a vote by the full Colorado senate during the 2019 legislative session after having been reported out of committee. Abolition proponents say they have sufficient votes for passage in the state House of Representatives and Governor Jared Polis has indicated he will sign the bill into law if it passes. If the repeal effort succeeds, Colorado would become the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty, and the tenth to do so in the past fifteen years.

The Virginia vote marked the second time the senate had passed what would be a first-in-the-nation legislative prohibition on the use of the death penalty against persons with severe mental illness. On January 27, 2019, the senate passed similar legislation by a 23-17 vote but that bill died without a vote in a House criminal justice subcommittee. This year, a majority of Republican senators (11 of 19), including five who had opposed the bill in 2019, joined all 21 senate Democrats in supporting the proposal.

After Democrats gained control of the Virginia House of Delegates in the November 2019 legislative elections, news reports say that subcommittee “has been dramatically reconfigured,” raising the prospects that the delegates will approve the mental illness exemption this session. The bill defines severe mental illness as “active psychotic symptoms that substantially impair a person’s capacity to (i) appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of the person’s conduct; (ii) exercise rational judgment in relation to the person’s conduct; or (iii) conform the person’s conduct to the requirements of the law.”

Governor Ralph Northam, who is also a medical doctor, says he supports the exemption.