Virginia would also become the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty. This is a momentous reversal: The state has outpaced almost every other in putting its citizens to death in the modern era. Since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, Virginia has executed 113 people — behind only Texas, a far outlier at 570 executions.
The potential for death-penalty abolition in Virginia is particularly welcome news following the spate of federal executions carried out in recent months. After a 17-year pause in federal executions, the Trump administration raced to kill several people on death row in its final days — an extremely rare occurrence during the transition of power. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in a forceful dissent on a decision that allowed the final execution to go forward, the Trump administration executed more than three times as many people in its final six months as the federal government had executed in the previous six decades.
Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs, the final two people put to death by the Trump administration, had both contracted covid-19 while on death row. Their lawyers argued that during their executions, lung damage from their illnesses would cause their lungs to rupture quickly, fill with fluids and create a sensation of drowning.
The death penalty is a cruelty unworthy of this nation even when the condemned don’t experience unimaginable suffering in their final moments. The practice is expensive, error-ridden and plagued by racial bias. Those sentenced to die are disproportionately Black and poor. And, since 1973, more than 170 people have been exonerated and released from death row. Worryingly, defendants commonly land there in large part due to inadequate legal representation, a function of poverty. An irreversible punishment that is disproportionately handed down to Black, intellectually disabled and poor Americans cannot pass for justice.
The momentum in Virginia to turn away from state-sponsored killing is heartening, especially considering that a more limited measure to ban executions of those with severe mental illness failed to pass just last year. The tides appear to be changing quickly, no doubt in part due to the racial justice protests that followed George Floyd’s death. Other states should follow Virginia in leaving behind the gruesome practice. If Virginia can shift so quickly in renouncing an unworthy tradition, let us hope it can happen anywhere.