Janna Reynolds, The Catholic Virginian

Prison ministry volunteers from St. Edward the Confessor and Epiphany parishes, Chesterfield, met with Sen. Glen Sturtevant at his Richmond office, Monday, Dec. 3, to present petitions in favor of exempting people with severe mental illness from the death penalty in Virginia. 

Tom Petersik, Jennifer Snider and Laurie Weeda, along with Imad Damaj of the Islamic Center of Virginia wanted to show evidence of faith constituents’ support “for legislation such as 2018’s SB 802” in the upcoming year, according to a statement presented to Sturtevant alongside the petitions.

Senate Bill 802, presented to the Virginia General Assembly and referred to the Courts of Justice Committee on Jan. 10, 2018, states, in part, that evidence may be presented in a trial by jury to impose life imprisonment instead of the death penalty if “the capital felony was committed while the defendant was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance.” 

The Senate voted not to advance the bill on Jan. 17, 2018, according to Virginia’s Legislative Information System database, and a request was referred to the Virginia Crime Commission for further study.

The Virginia Catholic Conference supported legislation in 2017 and 2018 that would accomplish exempting people with severe mental illness from the death penalty.

Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, said the organization will offer strong support of this legislation in 2019, as they have in the last couple years.

“Executions have happened with alarming frequency in Virginia, and we think the conversation here, as in many other states, is starting to change,” said Caruso. “We see this bill as a way to continue the conversation about ways to curb the death penalty in Virginia.”

Sturtevant serves on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, under whose purview this legislation is controlled. 

“We realized that Sen. Sturtevant is serving the faith constituents in our area and we thought we could show him the support of the legislation,” said Petersik.

The Islamic Center of Virginia, which has an active prison ministry, hosted a meeting in October for people to discuss the legislation and hear presentations from Mental Health America and Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. More than 40 people of Catholic, Islamic, Jewish and Protestant faiths attended.

Upon receiving the petitions, Sturtevant spent about 10-15 minutes discussing the death penalty and how it relates to the severely mentally ill.

Expecting to gather a couple dozen signatures from their efforts, the group was pleased to present just over 800 signatures to Sturtevant, who, according to Petersik, seemed impressed by the number of handwritten, “grassroots” signatures that were gathered in large part by prison ministers and human concerns representatives during two weekends in November, primarily at churches and other religious centers before and after worship services.

“One really important thing in all of this is that there is a really cool immersion of faiths, in the Bon Air area in particular, that made a huge difference. That interfaith coalition really helped,” Petersik said.

According to Petersik, the group was often impressed by the people who signed their petitions, many of whom have family members or loved ones with mental illnesses. He noted that even people who are generally accepting of the death penalty recognized the need for legislation to exempt the severely mentally ill. 

While Sturtevant did not commit to specific actions, Petersik was encouraged by the senator being conversant about the legislation. 

“It was clear that he understood how important it was to us,” he said.

With this effort completed, Petersik plans to follow the legislation to see if there will be a future opportunity to support its passage, which could lead to visiting with other state representatives.

“This could open up, within the Catholic Church, the diocese and even parishes, a dialogue about the death penalty,” said Petersik. “It was important for us to act in a way that aligns with the thinking of the Church and in support of Virginia bishops.”