Legislators in the Virginia House and Senate are poised to attempt a repeal of its capital punishment statute, as Governor Ralph Northam (pictured) announced that he would sponsor a bill to end the commonwealth’s death penalty.

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.”

His action marked the first time in Virginia history that a sitting governor had sponsored death-penalty repeal legislation.

Legislators introduced three repeal bills in the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate on the legislative session’s first day. Two — SB 1165, introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell (D – Fairfax) with Republican co-patron, Bill Stanley (R – Franklin) and HB 2263, introduced by Del. Michael Mullin (D – Newport News) — are sponsored by the Governor. Del. Lee Carter (D – Manassas) has also introduced an abolition bill, HB 1779. Legislative leaders plan to conduct hearings on the repeal bills in the next several weeks.

The repeal bills appeared to gain momentum in the days leading up to the start of the legislative session as state Attorney General Mark Herring and twelve county prosecutors joined a coalition of African American faith leaders in calling for abolition.

Echoing Northam’s message, Herring said “it is time for Virginia to end the death penalty.” “I will support Governor Northam’s efforts to make it happen this year,” he said. “Its abolition must be part of our work to reform a flawed and imperfect criminal justice system.”

Riding a wave of election victories, a new organization of reform prosecutors, Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice, also advocated for abolition. Twelve reform prosecutors in the group, who represent nearly 40% of the commonwealth’s population including the Washington, DC suburbs of Fairfax County, Loudoun County, and Prince William County, and the cities of Charlottesville, Newport News, and Norfolk, wrote a letter to legislative leaders calling for systemic criminal justice reforms. “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.

Leaders from the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy also joined the call for abolition. A group of Black pastors offered their support at a virtual news conference. Rev. Dr. LaKeisha Cook, justice reform organizer for the Center, said, “The history of capital punishment finds its roots in slavery, lynching and Jim Crow. Capital punishment is a racial justice issue. It is beyond time for us to address this historical sin.”

The Death Penalty Information Center’s September 2020 report, Enduring Injustice: The Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty spotlighted the history of blatant discrimination in Virginia’s use of the death penalty in the 20th century. From 1900 to 1969, four times as many Black prisoners were executed for murder than whites. In that same time, 73 Black prisoners were executed for rape, attempted rape, or robbery unaccompanied by murder, while no white prisoner was executed for any crime other than murder.

Abolition in Virginia is considered symbolically significant because the state has executed more people since the death penalty was re-enacted in the 1970s than any state other than Texas. No state in the Deep South has abolished capital punishment. However, the death penalty has been losing favor in Virginia over the past decade. The last execution in the commonwealth took place in 2017 and no one has been sentenced to death since 2011. Only two people remain on the commonwealth’s death row.

Twenty-two U.S. states have abolished capital punishment, and ten have done so in the last fifteen years. Three death-penalty states — California, Pennsylvania, and Oregon — who collectively comprise nearly one-third of the nation’s death-row population — have moratoria on executions. No Atlantic coast state north of Virginia still permits the death penalty.


Gregory S. Schneider and Laura Vozzella, Northam calls for end to death penal­ty, address­ing racial inequity as law­mak­ers return to Richmond, Washington Post, January 13, 2021; Megan Schiffres, A Message of Hope: Northam Offers Optimistic State of the Commonwealth, Dogwood, January 14, 2021; Frank Green, Bills sup­port­ed by Northam to end death penal­ty in Virginia intro­duced in House and Senate, Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 13, 2021; News Staff, Herring sup­ports efforts to end death penal­ty in 2020 leg­isla­tive ses­sion, WCAV-TV, Charlottesville, January 14, 2021; Ivan Pereira, Virginia law­mak­ers intro­duce bill to abol­ish death penal­ty, ABC News, January 13, 2021; Frank Green, Members of Black cler­gy call for end to death penal­ty in Virginia, Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 7, 2021; Abigail Constantino, Northern Virginia pros­e­cu­tors push to abol­ish death penal­ty, WTOP, D.C. Metro, January 4, 2021; Northern Va. pros­e­cu­tors join call for Virginia to abol­ish death penal­ty, Inside NoVa, January 5, 2021; Margaret Matray, Progressive pros­e­cu­tors’ want Virginia to end the death penal­ty, cash bail and manda­to­ry min­i­mums, The Virginian-Pilot, January 4, 2021; Sarah Rankin, Virginia advo­cates set to try again on death penal­ty repeal, Associated Press, December 302020.

Read the let­ter from Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice.