The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia abolishes the death penalty, becoming the first Southern state to ban its use

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), left, and Larry Edmonds, right, warden of the Greensville Correctional Center, at the Greensville Correctional Center near Jarratt on Wednesday. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill Wednesday banning the death penalty, making Virginia the first of the old Confederate states to do so.

Over the past 400 years, Virginia has executed more prisoners than any other state. It is the second-most-prolific death-penalty state of the modern era, behind Texas.

Northam (D) signed the bill at the Greensville Correctional Center near Jarratt, site of the state’s execution chamber.

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

“Signing this new law is the right thing to do. It is the moral thing to do,” Northam said Wednesday afternoon, speaking to a gathering of lawmakers and prison officials under a tent outside the correctional center before signing the bill.

Northam said he had just toured the execution chamber.

“I know that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life,” Northam said.

He described how his thinking on capital punishment has changed over the years. As a young man, he said, “I believed in an eye for an eye.” But as he got older, he said, he came to understand that the system was fundamentally flawed.

“It is not fair,” he said. “It is applied differently based on who you are. And the system has gotten it wrong.”

Citing the long history of racial disparity in the way the death penalty has been applied, with Black defendants far more likely to be executed than White ones, Northam said the system can no longer be justified.

“There is no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the South or in this nation,” he said.

Virginia juries have largely stopped handing out death sentences in recent years. The state’s last execution was in 2017, and only two inmates remained on the state’s death row after years with a population in the double digits.

The Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed the ban on capital punishment earlier this year with some bipartisan support. Two GOP delegates and one senator joined in the vote.

Lawmakers vote to make Virginia first Southern state to abolish death penalty

Other Republicans said they would have supported ending the death penalty if the bill had included a sentence of life without the possibility of parole as an alternative, but Democrats insisted on preserving flexibility for sentencing.

Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who sponsored the Senate version of the bill and has worked against the death penalty for more than a decade, cited Virginia’s history as both the birthplace of the Bill of Rights during the Revolution era and a land of racism and violence against Black people during the time of Jim Crow.

The connection between the lynching of Black men and the advent of the death penalty is “undeniable,” Surovell said. Northam’s action, he added, would “restore Virginia to its position of leadership not just in the county but in the world as a society, a government that values civil rights.”

The ban highlights Virginia’s sharp political pivot in recent years, as the once-conservative state has become more diverse and increasingly blue. Democrats won their majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly in 2019 after a generation of Republican control.

After last year’s protests over racial inequity, driven by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, Virginia Democrats enacted a slate of changes to the state’s criminal justice system.

Those include requirements for police training and oversight, allowing defendants convicted by a jury to be sentenced by a judge and legalizing recreational use of small amounts of marijuana by 2024.

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