Virginia Becomes 23rd State and the First in the South to Abolish the Death Penalty

Saying “[t]here is no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the South, or in this nation,” Governor Ralph Northam (pictured) signed historic legislation making Virginia the 23rd U.S. state and the first in the South to abolish capital punishment.

Governor Northam signed the bill in a March 24, 2021 ceremony at the Greensville Correctional Center, where the commonwealth’s execution chamber had been located since 1991. With Virginia’s abolition, a majority of U.S. states (26) have either abolished the death penalty or have a formal moratorium on executions.

“Signing this new law is the right thing to do,” Northam said. “It is the moral thing to do.”

Northam was joined at the bill signing by legislators, anti-death penalty activists, capital attorneys, and faith leaders. Delegate Mike Mullin, a criminal prosecutor and sponsor of the abolition legislation, spoke about the racial bias in Virginia’s use of capital punishment. “We’ve carried out the death penalty in extraordinarily unfair fashion,” he said. “Only four times out of nearly 1400 [executions] was the defendant white and the victim Black.” Rev. LaKeisha Cook, justice reform organizer for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said at the ceremony, “Today, we start a new chapter, embracing the possibility of a new, evidence-based approach to public safety: one that values the dignity of all human beings and is focused on transforming the justice system into one that is rooted in fairness, accountability, and redemption.”

On February 3, the Virginia Senate voted along party lines, 21-17, in favor of abolishing capital punishment. Two days later, three Republicans joined all but one Democrat in the Virginia House of Delegates in a 57-41 vote to repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. Each legislative body approved the other house’s bill on February 22, marking the final step before the legislation moved to the governor’s desk.

The repeal effort was supported by Governor Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring. Northam issued a call to abolish the death penalty during his January 13, 2021 State of the Commonwealth address marking the opening of the 2021 legislative session. “It’s time to change the law and end the death penalty in Virginia,” Northam said. “We’re taking these actions because we value people and we believe in treating them equitably.” According to a Wason Center for Civic Leadership poll released in February, a majority of Virginians (56%) support repeal of the death penalty.

A group of twelve reform prosecutors, from jurisdictions representing 40% of Virginia’s population, urged the legislature to pass the bill. “The death penalty is unjust, racially biased, and ineffective at deterring crime,” they wrote. “We have more equitable and effective means of keeping our communities safe and addressing society’s most heinous crimes. It is past time for Virginia to end this antiquated practice.”

In 1608, Virginia was the first European colony to carry out an execution in what is now the United States and the 1,390 executions it has conducted are the most of an U.S. jurisdiction. It has put 113 prisoners to death since executions resumed in the U.S. in the 1970s, second only to Texas.

“Virginia’s abolition of capital punishment is tremendously significant, both in terms of the death penalty’s continuing nationwide decline and as an historical marker of race relations in the United States,” said DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham. “No state that has relied so heavily on capital punishment has ever before repealed its death penalty. Going back to colonial times, Virginia has conducted more executions than any other U.S. jurisdiction and, in the modern era, it trails only Texas in the number of people it has put to death.”

“The symbolic value of a legislature sitting in the former capital of the Confederacy dismantling this tool of racial oppression cannot be overstated,” Dunham said.

“Virginia’s death penalty is rooted in racial oppression,” LaKeisha Cook from the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy said. “Now that it is coming to an end, we can start a new chapter that embraces an evidence-based approach to public safety: One that values the dignity of all human beings and is focused on transforming the justice system into one rooted in fairness, accountability, and redemption.”

Sources

Gregory S. Schneider, Virginia abol­ish­es the death penal­ty, becom­ing the first Southern state to ban its use, The Washington Post, March 24, 2021; Amanda Golden and Geoff Bennett, Virginia becomes 1st Southern state to abol­ish death penal­ty as gov­er­nor signs law, NBC News, March 24, 2021; Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, VIRGINIA TO BECOME THE FIRST SOUTHERN STATE TO ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY TODAY, The Appeal, March 24, 2021; Zack Linly, Virginia Becomes First Southern State to Abolish the Death Penalty After Holding Record for Most Executions in the US, The Root, March 24, 2021; Denise LaVoie, Virginia, with 2nd-most exe­cu­tions, out­laws death penal­ty, Associated Press, March 24, 2021; Frank Green, It is the moral thing to do’: Virginia’s death penal­ty abol­ished in his­toric sign­ing, Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 242021.

Read the state­ment from Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Read the Governor’s Press Release.