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Northam issues pardons in flurry of actions before leaving office

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), right, listens to operations director George Hinkle as he explains the workings of the holding cells near the death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., in March 2021. The governor signed a bill after the tour abolishing the death penalty. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam prepared to leave office with a flurry of actions Friday, including issuing pardons and consigning the state’s former electric chair to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Northam has now issued more than 1,200 pardons during his four-year term — more than nine previous governors combined, according to his office.

Among those pardons was one issued this week for state Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond), who was convicted of a misdemeanor in 2014 over a relationship with a 17-year-old who was working as his assistant. Morrissey later married her, and they had several children together.

Morrissey said Friday that he applied for executive clemency several weeks ago, going through the normal pardon petition process. He found out it had been granted Thursday afternoon.

“My wife and I are extremely pleased that the governor pardoned me, but the people that are going to be most pleased and most grateful are our four little kids in the ensuing years,” he said.

Other pardons include exonerating eight people who served lengthy prison terms for crimes they did not commit, a news release from the governor’s office said.

“When people make mistakes, and pay their debts, they deserve the opportunity to return and be productive members of society," Northam said in the release. "We can all be proud that Virginia has been able to provide thousands of deserving people the opportunity for a fresh start.”

Northam also issued rare posthumous pardons last year for the Martinsville Seven, a group of Black men who were executed in 1951 after an all-White jury found them guilty of raping a White woman.

Northam grants posthumous pardons to the Martinsville Seven, Black men executed in 1951 for rape

The governor’s office said he reviewed more than 4,000 pardon petitions during his term in office — far more than most governors, they said, because he devoted extra resources to the task, which can take years to play out.

In addition, Northam restored the civil rights of more than 126,000 people who had been convicted of felonies and completed their sentences. Virginia is one of the few states in which a person convicted of a felony permanently loses civil rights such as the ability to vote, hold office or own a gun.

Only the action of a governor can restore those rights — though the General Assembly is set to consider seeking a constitutional amendment to make felon rights restoration automatic once someone has served their time behind bars.

Virginia is about to abolish the death penalty. It was a long, surprising road to get there.

Northam also announced Friday that he has sent the state’s 114-year-old electric chair to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, along with other implements of capital punishment.

Last year, the General Assembly passed and Northam signed a law abolishing the death penalty in Virginia, making it the first former Confederate state to do so. In its 402 years, Virginia has executed more than 1,300 people — the most of any state.

The oak electric chair was installed in 1908 and used to execute 267 people. After the state began offering death row inmates a choice between the chair and lethal injection, lethal injection became the primary method of execution. A medical gurney used in that process at the Greensville Correctional Center was also sent to the museum Friday, along with other items including leather straps, heart monitors and wall switches.

This week, Northam formally commuted the sentences of the last two men on death row to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Northam is set to leave office Saturday with the midday inauguration of Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin. The state constitution bars all Virginia governors from seeking a second consecutive term.