Virginia General Assembly votes to abolish death penalty; local commonwealth’s attorney weighs in


RICHMOND, Va. (WJHL) – The Virginia House of Delegates Friday joined the Senate in voting to abolish the death penalty, a measure backed by the Northam administration.

During his State of the Commonwealth Address, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced his support to abolish capital punishment. On Friday, the Democratic-majority legislature passed it.

The bill passed the House of Delegates on a 57-41 vote, which followed a heated debate in the chamber.

In the Senate, the bill was approved on a 21-17 vote Wednesday. 

Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that the vote by both chambers will impact how murder cases are tried in the Commonwealth.

Slemp said he is no stranger to capital murder cases.

“One of the first cases I took on while I was the commonwealth’s attorney in 2016 was a capital murder conviction and I actually agreed to take the death penalty off the table in exchange for a couple of life sentences without the possibility of parole. And so, I know the struggles are very real. Prosecutors struggle with these decisions every day. One of the most difficult things that a prosecutor can do is stand before a jury and make the heart-wrenching decision to ask the jury to return a death verdict, return a sentence for death, obviously that is not something that is taken lightly. Obviously, that’s not something that happens all the time. In fact, we’ve not had one of those particular cases in Wise County in a long time. But I will say that the most vile, horrendous, the most unconscionable crimes deserve, I believe, the most severe punishment available to mankind, and that is the death penalty,” he said.

He said even when it was an option, it was not often utilized as a law enforcement tool.

“I don’t think we should use it often. I don’t like the use of it, but I think it is important as a tool for law enforcement, and for the court system for certain heinous vile horrible unconscionable crimes,” Slemp said.

He recalled a case out of Wise County most often referred to when the death penalty was debated in Virginia.

“The case of Robert Gleason, who was the last person to Wise County sentenced to death, his sentence was, was carried out in, I believe it was 2014, his name is Robert Gleason,” Slemp explained. “Robert Gleason was a convicted murderer serving a life sentence, he was sent to a prison here in Wise County where he murdered his cellmate. When the commonwealth’s attorney at the time said that they would not seek the death penalty. He said, ‘if you don’t seek the death penalty, if you don’t kill me, I’m going to kill again,’ and he did from isolation, at a prison here in Wise County, he killed another inmate, and that time he got his wish. And he was given the death penalty. He was the classic example of an unstoppable man. The only thing that would stop him from killing was the death penalty. And I daresay if he was still alive today. If the death penalty hadn’t been an option, he would still be killing. I’m sure of that.”

Slemp said that he respects the General Assembly’s decision to abolish the death penalty.

“Well, I’ve got a viewpoint based upon my criminal cases, you know, the death penalty isn’t given very often in Virginia, and it’s only given after a jury, or a court makes the determination and finding future dangerousness. So, for just kind of an example, just because somebody committed a crime that qualifies for the death penalty, doesn’t mean they’re going to get the death penalty. They have to actually have a finding that that person has a propensity to danger and that they’re going to likely commit another violent crime, murder, not just any violent crime but they have a propensity for another murder,” he explained.

He explained to News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that as a prosecutor, he has to enforce the laws passed by the General Assembly.

“I respect what the General Assembly was doing here, I know they passed the law. As a prosecutor, my job is not to make laws but to enforce the laws that they pass and so I respect their decision. It will mean that we will have to see what we’re going to do on our pending capital cases and change strategy, obviously,” he said. “We have several pending [murder cases] right now in Wise County, and this will have a direct impact on those people, and the victims of those violent crimes who want justice, who want vengeance, who want whatever it might be. We’re going to have to consult with those individuals to tell them ‘look this is no longer an option.’ and now what’s our strategy.”

Under the new legislation, capital punishment would be reevaluated as aggravated murder.

“It will convert. Of course, we’re going to have to go through some legal mechanisms, but essentially capital cases become aggravated murder, which you’ve got first-degree murder, second-degree murder manslaughter, right, capital murder is the most vile and heinous cases right, and there are certain categories of people who only classification qualify. So for those individuals, it’s my understanding that this legislation will change that capital designation to aggravated murder,” he explained. “Instead of having the death penalty as an option. The punishment will be up to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as the option.”

He said one of his main concerns with the change, is that life in prison does not always last an entire lifetime.

“Now, one concern that has been discussed on the House floor, and on the Senate floor has been even for people who are sentenced in Virginia, to live without the possibility of parole, that doesn’t mean that they’re never getting out anymore,” Slemp explained.

Under the new legislation, a judge could suspend some of the life sentence later on, except in cases of aggravated murder of a law enforcement officer.

Two men remain on death row in Virginia, and this legislation would convert their sentences to life in prison without parole.

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