Virginia has become the 23rd US state and the first in the south to abolish the death penalty, a dramatic shift for the commonwealth which previously had the nation’s second-highest number of executions.
The move was the culmination of a years long battle by Democrats who argued the death penalty has been applied disproportionately to people of color, mentally ill people and poor people. Republicans argued that the death penalty should remain a sentencing option for especially heinous crimes and to bring justice to victims and their families.
Virginia’s new Democratic majority, in full control of the general assembly for a second year, won the debate last month when the senate and house of delegates passed measures banning capital punishment.
The state’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, signed the house and senate bills in a ceremony on Wednesday after touring the execution chamber at the Greensville correctional center, where 102 people have been put to death since executions were moved there from the Virginia state penitentiary in the early 1990s.
“There is no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the south or in this nation,” Northam said shortly before signing the legislation.
The change is also significant for making Virginia the first state of the former Confederate south to abandon capital punishment. Northam said the death penalty has been disproportionately applied to Black people and is the product of a flawed judicial system. Since 1973, more than 170 people around the country have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence was uncovered, he said.
Northam recounted the story of Earl Washington Jr, a Black man who was sentenced to death after being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in Virginia in 1984. Washington spent more than 17 years in prison before he was exonerated. He came within nine days of being executed.
“We can’t give out the ultimate punishment without being 100% sure that we’re right, and we can’t sentence people to that ultimate punishment knowing that the system doesn’t work the same for everyone,” Northam said.
Virginia has executed nearly 1,400 people since its days as a colony. In modern times, the state is second only to Texas in the number of executions it has carried out, with 113 since the supreme court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.
Only two men remain on Virginia’s death row: Anthony Juniper, who was sentenced to death in the 2004 slayings of his ex-girlfriend, two of her children, and her brother; and Thomas Porter, who was sentenced to die for the 2005 killing of a Norfolk police officer. Their sentences will now be converted to life in prison without parole.
In addition to the 23 states that have now abolished the death penalty, three others have moratoriums in place that were imposed by their governors.
Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, and a death penalty opponent, said abolishing executions in Virginia could mark the beginning of the end for capital punishment in the south, where the highest number of prisoners are put to death.
“Virginia’s death penalty has deep roots in slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow segregation,” said Dunham. “The symbolic value of dismantling this tool that has been used historically as a mechanism for racial oppression by a legislature sitting in the former capital of the Confederacy can’t be overstated.”
During Northam’s tour of the death chamber, he was shown the wooden chair where death row inmates were electrocuted and a metal gurney where they were given lethal injections. He also saw the holding cells where they spent the final days of their lives and had their last meals.
“It is a powerful thing to stand in the room where people have been put to death,” Northam told the crowd of lawmakers and death penalty opponents who attended the bill-signing ceremony.
“I know that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life, and it reinforced [to] me that signing this new law is the right thing to do.”