The Virginia Senate moved the commonwealth one step closer to becoming the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment, voting 21-17 on February 3, 2021 to approve a bill that would end the state’s death penalty and resentence the two men on death row to life without parole.

The party-line vote clears a major hurdle in the commonwealth’s historic effort at abolition. The bill could see a vote in the House of Delegates as soon as February 5, after a companion measure passed the House Courts of Justice Committee, also on February 3, by a vote of 15-6-1. Governor Ralph Northam, who is sponsoring the legislation, praised the Senate vote as “tremendous step toward ending the death penalty in our Commonwealth.” In a statement released to the media, he said, “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.”

In the lead-up to the Senate vote, the Wason Center for Civic Leadership released a poll showing that a majority of Virginians (56%) support repeal of 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%) said they supported the measure.

Despite bipartisan popular support for ending the death penalty, no 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.”

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 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, February 22021

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