With two historic votes, the Virginia General Assembly has moved the commonwealth to the cusp of becoming the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment, approving separate bills that would end the state’s death penalty and resentence the two men on death row to life without parole. On February 3, 2021, the Virginia State 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.

Because of slight differences between the language of the two bills, one of the houses of the General Assembly must still approve the language of a bill passed by the other chamber before the measure can be transmitted to Governor Ralph Northam for his signature. Northam, who became the first Virginia governor to sponsor legislation to abolish the death penalty, issued a statement after the Senate vote calling the senators’ action “a tremendous step toward ending the death penalty in our Commonwealth.” “It’s time for Virginia to join 22 other states and abolish the death penalty. I applaud every Senator who cast a courageous vote today, and I look forward to signing this bill into law,” Northam said.

In a statement following the House vote, Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said “Today, our Commonwealth took a historic step in making our criminal justice system more just. The repeal of capital punishment in Virginia takes our Commonwealth out of the business of determining life and death and ends a practice that a majority of Virginia oppose.” In an interview with The Washington Post, she called the vote “historic” and “transformational.” “Virginia is changing, and … it’s what the public wants.”

As the legislature was preparing to debate the death penalty bills, the Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University released a poll showing that a majority of Virginians (56%) supported repealing the death penalty. Support was strongest among Democrats (74%), Black voters (72%), and people under 45 (62%). More than one-third of Republican respondents (36%) also said they supported the measure.

Despite bipartisan popular support for ending the death penalty, no Senate Republicans voted for the repeal bill. In a dramatic turn during the floor debate on the measure, two Republican lawmakers who had voted to advance the bill out of committee withdrew their support.

Sen. William Stanley, who had initially signed on as a co-patron of the bill, abstained from voting after expressing frustration that his colleagues had voted down an amendment that would have guaranteed that defendants convicted of aggravated murder would never be released on parole. Sen. Jill Vogel, who also had supported the bill in committee, voted against the bill saying it left open the possibility that prisoners convicted of aggravated murder could eventually be released. The Washington Post reported that the dispute had cost the bill three Republican votes and the mantle of bipartisanship.

The debate on the bill highlighted systemic problems endemic to capital punishment, including the risk of executing innocent people, the cost of death-penalty cases, and persistent racial bias in its application. “I cannot think of anything that is more awful, unspeakable and wrong for a government to do than to use its power to execute somebody who didn’t commit the crime they’re accused of,” Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, the bill’s sponsor, said. “The problem with capital punishment is that once it’s inflicted you can’t take it back, it can’t be corrected.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan shared the story of Jerry Givens, who carried out 62 executions in Virginia before becoming an anti-death penalty activist and speaking out about the toll executions take on corrections officers. Several senators said they opposed repeal because they believe the death penalty offers justice for families of murder victims. In response, Sen. Janet Howell gave an emotional description of how the murder of her father-in-law caused her to question her former support of capital punishment. The prospect of the death penalty divided her family, she said. “I don’t buy the idea that we would support the death penalty for the benefit of victims’ families. It doesn’t work that way. Trust me, it doesn’t work that way.”

The vote in the House of Delegates also reflected philosophical differences between the parties, although three Republicans in the chamber voted in favor of the repeal.

Virginia’s move toward abolition is seen as a landmark event because of the state’s history and its once-heavy use of capital punishment. No former Confederate state has abolished the death penalty. The first execution performed by Europeans in what is now the United States took place in Virginia’s Jamestown colony in 1608. In its 400-year history, the commonwealth has executed more people than any other state, and in the modern era of the death penalty, since executions resumed in the U.S. in the 1970s, it is second only to Texas.


Sarah Rankin, Virginia House joins Senate in vot­ing to end death penal­ty, Associated Press, February 5, 2021; Gregory S. Schneider and Laura Vozzella, Virginia leg­is­la­ture votes to legal­ize mar­i­jua­na, abol­ish the death penal­ty, Washington Post, February 5, 2021; Sarah Rankin, Virginia Senate pass­es death penal­ty abo­li­tion bill, Associated Press, February 3, 2021; Laura Vozzella and Gregory S. Schneider, With state Senate vote, Virginia moves clos­er to abol­ish­ing death penal­ty, Washington Post, February 3, 2021; Jackie DeFusco and Dean Mirshahi, Virginia Senate pass­es bill to abol­ish death penal­ty, WFXR, February 3, 2021; Ana Ley, Virginians side with Democrats on legal­iz­ing mar­i­jua­na and end­ing death penal­ty, new poll says, The Virginian-Pilot, February 2, 2021; State of the Commonwealth, The Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University, February 22021.

Read Governor Ralph Northam’s state­ment on the Virginia Senate’s pas­sage of the death-penal­­ty repeal bill.