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Alums help abolish death penalty in Virginia


 
Sen. Scott Surovell ('93) huddles with his Democratic colleagues on the floor of the Virginia Senate during the 2020 legislative session.

SUMMARY: Scott Surovell (’93) carried the legislation in the Virginia Senate, while fellow attorney Doug Ramseur (’93), a member of the Virginia Capital Defenders office, helped the bill clear a significant hurdle by testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.


UPDATE: On March 24, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill ending the death penalty in Virginia. The legislation will go into effect this July.

 

By Jim Heffernan (’96, ’17M)

Two Dukes were pivotal in the General Assembly’s historic vote in February to end the death penalty in Virginia.

State Sen. Scott Surovell (’93), a Democrat who represents parts of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties, carried the legislation in the Senate, and the House of Delegates sponsored a separate but identical bill, both of which passed along party lines. Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign the measure into law.

During the floor debate in the Senate, Surovell said as vice president of the Student Government Association in his senior year at JMU, he was encouraged by then-JMU President Ronald E. Carrier to apply for the Governor’s Fellows Program. As a fellow in 1993, he toured the state’s new execution chamber in the Greensville Correctional Center. The image of the electric chair in that room—Virginia had not yet adopted lethal injection—haunted him. 

“I didn’t want to get anywhere near the thing,” Surovell said. “To me, it was creepy and disgusting.”

In retrospect, he said, the decision to show off the chamber to a group of young leaders from around the state spoke volumes about the prevailing attitudes toward the death penalty in Virginia at the time.

“Seeing all that made me hate it even more and want to do something about it,” he said.

Heading into the 2021 legislative session in Richmond, momentum was building for the prospect of ending more than four centuries of capital punishment in the commonwealth. Surovell, who in previous sessions had introduced legislation chipping away at the practice, now had the backing of a Democratic majority in both houses and the state’s chief executive for its repeal.

In addition, public opinion on the issue of capital punishment—even among some family members of victims—has shifted in recent years, Surovell said. In 2020, polling indicated that 45% of Americans oppose the death penalty as a punishment for murder, and 56% of Virginians support abolition.

“It’s impossible to get a fair jury of your peers when half of them can’t sit [on the panel],” he said.

The system is also expensive, Surovell said. Virginia, which has executed more people than any other state and is second only to Texas in the number of state-sanctioned killings since 1976, spends about $50 million every 10 years to make the death penalty available to juries in capital murder cases. But jurors are increasingly reluctant to use it, according to Surovell.

Surovell’s classmate at JMU, criminal defense attorney Doug Ramseur (’93), has been keeping clients off death row for 20 years.

“When I started handling death penalty cases in my practice, my goal was to end the death penalty one case at a time … until we realized we just don’t need it in Virginia anymore,” he said.

Ramseur, who was a member of JMU’s nationally ranked Debate Team, opposes capital punishment on moral and legal grounds.

“How ludicrous it is, in a civilized society, to think that we can decide whether someone lives or dies in some sort of formal and cordial way,” he said.

The use of the death penalty also reveals patterns of racial bias in the criminal justice system, Ramseur said. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, more than 75% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50% of murder victims generally are white. Northam said approximately 79% of people executed by the state in the 20th century were Black.

The system also values rich people over poor people, Ramseur said. “I’ve represented all kinds of people in my career—white, Black, women, the mentally ill and the innocent. I’ve never once represented a rich person charged with a capital offense.”

Then there’s the issue of wrongful conviction. Studies have shown that 1 in 10 defendants in capital murder cases is, in fact, innocent.

Since Virginia established Capital Defender offices in 2002 to provide legal counsel for defendants who otherwise could not afford it, Ramseur has represented 30 people charged with capital offenses. None has received the death penalty.

“Once we started spending real money on capital defense and a group of lawyers—like Doug— who were exclusively focused on that, the number of capital murder convictions in the state has dropped significantly,” Surovell said.

In September 2020, Ramseur served as lead defense counsel in what might turn out to be the last capital murder case in Virginia history. “It was a case I worked on for three and a half years,” he said. Ultimately his client was acquitted.

Despite both being political science majors at JMU, Surovell and Ramseur did not cross paths until 2015 while advocating for a new law to allow defense teams to gain access to more evidence before going to trial. Ramseur testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in February on behalf of Surovell’s bill to abolish the death penalty.

Surovell said the repeal of the death penalty in Virginia, while a landmark bill, will not be his signature accomplishment as a lawmaker. “These cases tend to be high-profile and attract a lot of attention, but I’ve carried bills that have helped far more people,” he said, citing his support for expanding Medicaid in Virginia, granting driver’s licenses to 300,000 undocumented immigrants in the state and forcing Dominion Resources to spend billions to clean up coal ash along the James, Elizabeth and Potomac rivers.

“I hope the voters allow me to continue serving,” he said.

For Ramseur, the end of the death penalty will mark the closing of a significant chapter in his professional life.

“This is a career-defining moment for me,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole career trying to accomplish this. Now I’m going to have to figure out what my second act is.” 

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Published: Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Last Updated: Monday, March 29, 2021

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