Calling the death penalty “a failed government program,” 21 current and former Virginia prosecutors have signed on to a letter to the commonwealth’s General Assembly urging the legislature to abolish capital punishment. The letter was signed by former Attorneys General Mark L. Earley, Sr., a Republican who presided over 36 executions during 13 years in office, and Democrat William G. Broaddus, nine current or former Commonwealth’s Attorneys elected across the state, and 12 other former homicide prosecutors.

“As prosecutors with different beliefs and backgrounds, we do not all agree on the morality of capital punishment,” the letter says. “However, all of us do agree on the public policy goal of death penalty repeal.” Repeal bills have been introduced in both chambers of the legislature. The Senate Judiciary Committee included the repeal bill, SB 449, in a slate of bills heard February 3, 2020, and the House Courts of Justice Committee is expected to consider its version of the bill, HB 85, later in the week.

The letter highlights the geographically arbitrary application of capital punishment across Virginia and juries’ increasing reluctance to impose it. “Nearly two-thirds of Virginia jurisdictions have not pursued a death sentence in over 50 years,” the prosecutors wrote. “Virginia juries have not imposed a death sentence in over eight years.”

The prosecutors emphasize several factors they believe call for repeal: the high cost of death-penalty cases, the arbitrary application of death sentences, the risk of wrongful convictions, and the lack of deterrent effect. “Whether the death penalty is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ we all conclude that there is a more cost-effective, constitutional way to respond to the most heinous crimes: a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole,” they say. “Life without parole sentences help preserve our limited resources, give more finality to victim families, and leave the opportunity to free the wrongfully convicted. Most importantly, a life without parole sentence ensures that the most dangerous criminals can never threaten the public again, and that they will die in prison without any fanfare or publicity.”

Repeal, they write, will also free up “further resources for crime victims around the Commonwealth” and alleviate the recurring pain experienced by victims’ families as a result of the “potential multi-decade wait between a death sentence and execution,” if the sentence is eventually carried out.

Seven current Commonwealth’s Attorneys joined the Attorneys General in their call for repeal, including two prosecutors whose jurisdictions have active capital cases. Three recently elected prosecutors – Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Jim Hingeley, and Steve Descano – explicitly campaigned against the death penalty. The letter was also signed by Amy Ashworth, the newly elected Commonwealth’s Attorney in Prince William County, which has historically been one of the most active death-penalty jurisdictions in Virginia. It ranked among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for a majority of all executions as of 2013.

On January 30, the Virginia Senate passed SB 116, a measure that would prohibit the death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness, on a bipartisan 32-7 vote. No one has been sentenced to death in Virginia since 2011, and only three prisoners remained on death row as of October 1, 2019.


Virginia Prosecutors Call Death Penalty a Failed Government Program,’ The Crime Report, February 3, 2020; Chris Graham, Prosecutors call for end to death penal­ty in Virginia, Augusta Free Press, February 32020

Read the let­ter and the accom­pa­ny­ing press release from Justice Forward Virginia and Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.