JAMES CITY — It's bill-signing season in Virginia politics, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe came here Thursday to highlight legislation meant to close a loophole in domestic violence prosecutions.
House Bill 2064 came from Del. Mike Mullin, a Suffolk juvenile and domestic court prosecutor by trade. Mullin, D-Newport News, said he saw perpetrators game the system in his courtroom, qualifying for first offender status and lesser sentences despite violent crimes in their past.
The law already forbade this first offender status for those with an assault against a family member in their past. But it didn't list violent crime against a nonfamily member as a disqualifier. Mullin's bill, which passed the General Assembly unanimously, does just that unless a prosecuting attorney signs off on the change.
At a short ceremony at Avalon, a shelter in James City County, Mullin and others said the state has let down victims who came forward, only to see their abusers get a light sentence. Avalon Board of Directors Chair Glenda Turner called this outcome "disheartening and disempowering."
"That will happen no longer here in the commonwealth of Virginia," Mullin said.
It's unclear how common this has been. Mullin said he saw it half a dozen times, and that other members of the House committee he serves on that writes criminal law said they'd seen the same phenomenon in other parts of the state. Most members of this committee are attorneys and former prosecutors.
Williamsburg and James City County Commonwealth's Attorney Nate Green said it doesn't happen once a week, "but it does come up."
"I think even one incident is probably too many," said Mullin, who has taken a harder stance on criminal justice issues in the General Assembly than many of his colleagues in the Democratic Party.
McAuliffe signed this bill into law long before Thursday, and it goes into effect July 1. The event at Avalon was ceremonial, something the governor's office uses to draw attention to an issue or to give credit to legislators by inviting press to events in their district. McAuliffe held a similar event Wednesday in Arlington to call attention to legislation that requires insurance companies to provide women with 12 months of birth control at a time.
Mullin holds one of a few swing districts in the Virginia House of Delegates, and his competitor for the seat in November issued a statement following the signing ceremony. Former Williamsburg-James City County School Board member Heather Cordasco criticized Mullin for his votes on separate legislation that would have automatically granted someone who takes out a protective order a temporary concealed carry permit.
Mullin initially split with the majority of his party to vote for this legislation, but backed the governor after McAuliffe vetoed it, helping to uphold that veto.
"If Delegate Mullin wanted to show courage and stand up for domestic violence victims during this year's session, he should not have changed his position," Cordasco said in her statement. "Mike Mullin put his party ahead of doing the right thing and voting the interests of the district."
Mullin responded through his campaign spokesman that he'd heard from half a dozen domestic violence groups, all of whom opposed this legislation, contained in House Bills 1852 and 1853. McAuliffe also mentioned the proposal during Thursday's ceremony, saying statistics show that introducing a gun into a volatile domestic situation is more likely to hurt than help.
The crowd, which included local Democrats as well as advocates for victims of domestic violence, applauded.
Republicans in favor of the proposal argue that women should be able to make that decision for themselves, and that Virginia law allows them to carry a firearm now without a permit. They need the permit to legally conceal that weapon.
Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.