The State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

RICHMOND – A proposal aimed at replacing the death penalty that was abolished in Virginia last year with a mandatory life sentence for any type of aggravated murder failed to advance in a Senate panel on Wednesday. The legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, sought to expand current law, which mandates a life sentence without the possibility of parole only in the case of the murder of a law enforcement officer. 

State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County.

“If someone commits a Class 1 felony, they should spend the rest of their natural lives incarcerated and they should never see freedom again,” Stanley told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee before the panel put his legislation up for a vote.

For Stanley, an opponent of capital punishment who voted in favor of repealing it in 2021, his proposal was a renewed attempt at seeking a harsher penalty for the most abhorrent crimes in absence of the death penalty after a substitute bill had failed last year.

Stanley said that he had worked in “bipartisan fashion” with Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County, in ending capital punishment, but that they had disagreed on the term of imprisonment that should be imposed if aggrevated murder, a Class 1 Felony is determined by a court. “This is my attempt to try to strike reason and balance in the fact that we have eliminated the death penalty,” Stanley said Wednesday, adding that anyone who committed such crime should not be able to qualify for parole. 

“For the freedom that they took under the circumstances that are what we call aggravated, I do believe we should then make that pact with the public that we will protect them in that way,” Stanley said, jokingly calling himself “a glutton for life punishment.”

Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said that he opposed such sweeping punishment but that he would consider “a modification in a Timothy McVeigh type of situation of multiple murders, or mass murders.” He later clarified that he might consider denying parole to criminals that murdered two or more people. 

Picking up on Saslaw’s reference to the Oklahoma City Bomber, who killed 168 people in 1995, Stanley said that under current law, McVeigh would have qualified for parole. “If I can prevent someone that kills more than one person from ever seeing the light of day in freedom for the freedoms they took away, then I will step forward. I find anytime that we can work together and strengthen our laws to be a good thing,” he said. 

Surovell pointed out that in his experience, in 9 times out of 10, when someone commits mass murder, the United States Attorney usually takes on a case like that. “The federal government has a way of dealing with those situations as opposed to something that a commonwealth’s attorney ends up dealing with, at least if it’s three, four or five people,” he said.

After his bill failed on a party-line vote, Stanley vowed to bring it back next year. “It’s kinda like getting hit by a car and you put it in reverse to do it one more time,” he said. 

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.