Death-penalty repeal legislation in Virginia will move to Governor Ralph Northam’s desk, after both houses approved the bill passed earlier in the session in the opposite chamber. Virginia’s legislative rules required the House of Delegates to pass the Senate bill or vice versa, even though the bill text was identical. Governor Northam has pledged to sign the bill, which will make Virginia the 23rd state, and the first in the South, to abolish capital punishment.

The Virginia Senate passed HB 2263, the House version of the bill, by a 22-16 vote on February 22, 2021. Senator Jill Holtzman Vogel, who had initially voted for a prior version of the bill in committee, then against the Senate bill after it was amended, again changed her vote, becoming the only Republican senator to vote in favor of repeal. The House of Delegates passed SB 1165 on the same day, by a vote of 57-43, maintaining the same bipartisan support for repeal as in the initial vote.

The vote to repeal the death penalty was an historic change in a state that was the setting for more executions than any other state and that had carried out the second most executions since the resumption of capital punishment in the 1970s. “It was sort of part of the fabric of Virginia,” said former Virginia Attorney General Stephen D. Rosenthal.

In a joint statement, Governor Northam, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D – Fairfax) and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D – Fairfax) applauded the repeal effort, calling it “an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all.” “Over Virginia’s long history, this Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state. And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person,” the statement said. “It’s time we stop this machinery of death.”

Delegate Mike Mullin (D – Newport News) urged his colleagues to vote for final passage the repeal bill, which he sponsored. “There is no separating the death penalty in Virginia from racism,” he said during the floor debate. “They are inextricably linked. It’s a random, arbitrary and racist process. In fact, it wasn’t even until 1997 that Virginia even executed a white person for killing a Black [person], and even that’s only happened four times.”

The debate became emotional at times. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R – Shenandoah) accused Democrats of not expressing “even a little concern” for crime victims. Delegate Chris Hurst (D – Montgomery), who said he had not planned to speak, replied to Gilbert’s accusations by recounting his own anger when his girlfriend, a television journalist, was fatally shot on live television five years ago. He said he was tired of the “pandering” and “hand-wringing.” “We are not a nation of emotions,” he said. “We do not need to be a society that determines that there should be an eye for an eye.”

Virginia has carried out 1390 executions since 1608. In the modern era, it is second to Texas, with 113 executions since 1976. The last execution in Virginia took place in 2017, and two men are currently on death row. The bill would resentence them to life without possibility of parole. No one has been sentenced to death in Virginia since 2011.