About a decade ago, Virginia Republican state Sen. Bill Stanley made a decision that cost him three years of his political career. He helped kill a Republican-sponsored bill that would have expanded the death penalty to include accomplices of the so-called “triggerman.”

In other words, a person who hadn’t killed but in some way helped commit murder would also be eligible for capital punishment. His vote was crucial on that day in early 2012. He abstained, knowing that it would kill the bill.

He later paid for that decision.

“After that, the House wouldn’t pass any of my bills they were so mad,” said Stanley during an interview with Reckon. “And that was at a time when we had a Republican House, a Republican Senate and a Republican governor.”

A lot has changed since then. The Democrats have taken back control of the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion – the first time they’ve held all three in Virginia since 1994 when Governor Doug Wilder became the first African American to sit in any state governor’s mansion.

And Stanley has firmly positioned himself as a Southern conservative against the death penalty, a rare label in a region where the harshest form of justice is still firmly popular, according to multiple studies over the last 20 years.

He was a co-sponsor of the recently passed Senate bill that will soon make Virginia the 23rd state to abolish the capital punishment. Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has until March 31 to sign it into law.

Virginia State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, gestures during debate on the death penalty abolition bill at the Senate session at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Va., Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. The Senate passed the bill 22-18. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The action is a sign of rising liberal political power in Virginia and stands as a significant milestone for the South, a region responsible for over 80% of all executions conducted since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after a near 10-year pause. But with the GOP holding significant majorities in all Southern legislatures, Virginia’s Democrat-led abolishment of the death penalty isn’t a perfect blueprint of how to get similar results across the South.

But Stanley doesn’t necessarily see the abolishment of capital punishment as an exclusively Democratic issue. Outside of the South, there have been moves by Republicans to either abolish or significantly hamper the practice and he thinks that southern Republicans can come around to his way of thinking by carefully reexamining the logic behind pro-life and government control over what he describes as an “imperfect” death penalty process.

During the February vote, Sen. Stanley abstained owing to disagreements with Democrats about what would take the place of the death penalty. He favors life without parole whereas his colleagues across the aisle decided that everyone, regardless of the crime, will have the possibility of freedom. 

Despite that setback, he sees overturning capital punishment as a way to offer some closure on a brutal past, where harsh retribution and racial bias became a troubling union that has throughout history eagerly fed the death penalty process.  

“We need to understand the person that’s before the bar of justice,” he said. “Their life, what they’ve been through, why they’re here, and how we temper justice with mercy. And I think we got away from that concept and vengeance and prejudice crept in. The racial disparity among those who were convicted of capital crimes is stark. It’s a reminder of our past.”

Crucially for advocates of abolishment, when the bill is signed into law Virginia will become the first Southern state to do so – a major political achievement in a state that has executed more people since the 1970s than any other aside from Texas, according to statistics held by the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit think tank.

Other abolition attempts

Hank Sanders, a retired Alabama senator who for 20 straight years raised a bill in an attempt to abolish the practice. It never went anywhere, even when his party ran the legislature in Montgomery.

Speaking to Reckon from his home in Selma, Sanders, now 78, said that although he acknowledges the failure, being relentless is what keeps hope alive.

“People would say, ‘Why do you keep introducing that, you know it’s not gonna pass?’ And my response was, ‘Well, it may not pass this year,’” said Sanders, who was one of 13 children in his family. He eventually went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. “We have to keep educating. We have to keep pushing forward with the request. We have been looking for an example and Virginia is a great example. Southern states are the least [likely] to abolish the death penalty, but if one does it then that means that another one can and will do it.”

Thursday, June 27, 2013: Sen. Hank Sanders, center, and other black leaders gather on the steps of the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. Sanders is one lawmaker and he’s waging a nearly two-decade battle to repeal Alabama’s death penalty. He has unsuccessfully introduced bills year after year to end capital punishment in his Southern state.(AP Photo/Dave Martin, File)

Sanders also said that some Republican and Democratic colleagues  in Montgomery had over the years privately agreed with his stance on the death penalty. 

“Senators would tell me that if they voted for it then they wouldn’t be back in Montgomery to help on the other things,” said Sanders, highlighting the steadfast nature of the two-party system. “But you know, times are changing.”

Virginia’s historic moment comes not long after a flurry of executions in the final months of President Donald Trump’s administration that saw 13 people put to death in less than six months. Those deaths, many appearing hurried, thrust the issue back into the public spotlight. To date, the federal government has only carried out only 16 executions in nearly 60 years.  

While Virginia’s Democrats seized their moment, benefitting from a blue wave in the November 2019 election, they were unable to draw Republican support. Seventeen of the 18 Republicans in the Senate opposed the ban.

And that may be a sign of how reluctant Republicans are to touch anything that weakens the death penalty. 

Leah Nelson, director of research at Alabama Appleseed, a Montgomery-based advocacy group that concentrates on law and justice, says that one of the most likely routes for reluctant states like Alabama is the creation of a bipartisan coalition.  

“It’s been done in other states, but there isn’t even the beginning of a glimmer of such a coalition in Alabama,” she said. “Not for lack of trying. But the pervading ‘Can’t do the time, don’t do the crime’ attitude makes this particular reform extremely difficult. [District attorneys] are decreasingly likely to seek the death penalty, mostly because it is expensive. But that doesn’t help the 200+ individuals on death row.”

While all other Southern states still have the death penalty on the books, appetite for it has significantly eroded since peaking in 1998 when nearly 100 people were executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.  In comparison, 22 were executed in 2019. Some of that is in part because of lethal injection chemical supply issues, although some states have managed to source alternative chemicals and have other execution methods on the books.

In addition, the number of death sentences handed down to has also dropped. In 1998, 295 people were sentenced to death, compared with 18 in 2020.

Republican strength in the South

Aside from Virginia, Republicans currently dominate Southern politics — holding nearly all of the legislatures. Of all other states in the Southeast, Democrats only control governor’s mansions in North Carolina, Louisiana and Kentucky.

Experts predict further Democrats losses across state legislatures because Republicans will lead redistricting efforts in 2021, allowing them to consolidate control and potentially grow. However, Democrats will likely push hard for Stacy Abrams to become Georgia’s governor in 2022. 

So how do you get rid of the death penalty without Democrats leading the charge? 

Conventional political philosophy generally dictates that if you’re a pro-life Republican, you’re also probably pro-death penalty — although since 2018 the Catholic church has been against the practice. Those issues have been on converging paths and are often lumped together in the list of prerequisite conservative beliefs. However, Sen. Stanley believes the reality is the two ideas are on an existential collision course and Republicans have reexamine the issue. 

“You don’t say ‘innocent’ or ‘not innocent’ life,” he said, adding that he recently lost a baby daughter after she was born at 26 weeks. “Life was life, life is precious, no matter what it is, where it is, and no matter what stage it’s in. It doesn’t make sense that we have people who are for abortion and yet against the death penalty, and equally inconsistent, those that are pro-life and for the death penalty.”

He also said that tapping into Republican’s distrust of government could also help erode death penalty support across the South.

Conservatives like me, don’t trust the government,” he said. “We don’t like giving the government this awesome authority that it controls life or death over its citizens. I’ve been a lawyer, a litigator, and tried capital murder cases. And I see where the government gets it wrong. It’s not just a rare occurrence. And therefore, if the if the judiciary system cannot be trusted to be absolutely perfect then it should also not have the authority to take someone’s life, especially when we know that 170 American have been exonerated.”

He added: “You can correct most mistakes. But if you execute someone and then later find out you are wrong, you cannot unring that bell. And if Republicans can grasp that logic, we can make more progress.”