Virginia Set to Become First Southern State to Abolish the Death Penalty

Bills have been passed by the state Legislature, and Gov. Northam said he would support the change.
February 5, 2021, 8:05pm
Governor Ralph Northam (D) talks to the media at the Virginia State Capitol on Wednesday November 06, 2019 in Richmond, VA.
Governor Ralph Northam (D) talks to the media at the Virginia State Capitol on Wednesday November 06, 2019 in Richmond, VA. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Virginia has led the country in carrying out the most government-ordered executions for more than four centuries. Now, the Commonwealth is poised to become the 23rd state to abolish capital punishment and the first Southern state to do so.

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Friday morning, Virginia’s majority Democratic House of Delegates voted 57-41 in favor of abolishing the state’s death penalty, just two days after the state Senate approved a different version of the bill. 

The House approval all but guarantees it’ll become law, as Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has already expressed support for the bill. 

“It’s important that we shut down the machinery of death here in Virginia,” Northam said in an interview with the New York Times on Thursday.

There are two men currently on Virginia’s death row for capital murder, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which reported that they will have their sentences changed to life without parole.

“Today, our Commonwealth took a historic step in making our criminal justice system more just,” Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said following the vote. “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 Virginians oppose.”

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Virginia has been the national leader in carrying out executions for more than 400 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Nearly 1,400 people have been killed by the government in Virginia, according to a count by the organization.

The first recorded execution to take place in what’s now the U.S. was carried out in 1608, in the colony of Jamestown. The state also holds the record for executing the most people in a single day, killing five Black men via the electric chair 70 years ago this week, according to the DPIC.

While abolishing the death penalty is now inevitable in Virginia, there are some kinks to iron out about how the state will now punish its most serious crimes, according to the Washington Post. While the House version of the bill proposes the strict punishment of life without parole, the Senate version of the bill offers a more lenient alternative and the possibility of parole on a case-by-case basis.

Virginia, which has had a Democratic majority government since 2019, has been steadily trying to enact more progressive laws in the historically conservative Southern state. 
This week, the state’s House of Delegates voted to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults 21 and older. It would be the first Southern state to do so, according to local news channel 10 WAVY.

Last year, Colorado abolished the state death penalty, even as the federal government resumed executions of federal inmates for the first time in over 16 years under the Trump administration.