Virginia Abolishes the Death Penalty, First in the South

The governor of Virginia signed legislation on Wednesday, March 24, 2021, that made the state the 23rd in the U.S. to abolish the death penalty.

Democrat Governor Ralph Northam signed the bill after touring Greensville Correctional Center’s execution chamber, where 102 people have been executed. Prior to signing the bill, he acknowledged Virginia’s 413-year history of capital punishment, where 1,300 inmates have been executed, more than any other state.

“Ending the death penalty comes down to one fundamental question, one question: Is it fair?” Northam stated. “For the state to apply this ultimate, final punishment, the answer needs to be yes. Fair means that it is applied equally to anyone, no matter who they are. And fair means that we get it right, that the person punished for the crime did the crime. But we all know that the death penalty cannot meet those criteria.”

Northam also commented on the legislature’s role in racial injustice, with 296 of the 377 people executed by the state in the 20th century being black.

“Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death. Abolishing this inhumane practice is the moral thing to do. This is a truly historic day for Virginia…”

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The state is the first Southern U.S. state to abolish the penalty, a dramatic change considering that it had the second-highest number of executions in the U.S.

Democrats pushed for a repeal of the legislation, stating that those of colour, the mentally ill and the poor had been disproportionately targeted. Republicans ineffectively challenged the move, arguing that the penalty was needed for notably heinous crimes.

But the Democrats, who control Virginia’s general assembly for the second year running, gained victory in February, with the Senate and the House of Delegates passing the bill to ban capital punishment.

Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center Robert Dunham said the new legislation could be the start to the end of capital punishment in the South, a pivotal moment for the U.S.

The evidence is clear. The use of the death penalty is riddled with wrongful convictions, inadequate representation, and racial bias.

“Eliminating the use of the death penalty here in Virginia is long overdue,” said Virginia’s Delegate Mike Mullin. “The evidence is clear. The use of the death penalty is riddled with wrongful convictions, inadequate representation, and racial bias. I am thankful that with the Governor’s signature today, we have relegated this inhumane practice to the history books.”

The legislation overturns the sentences of the two men currently on death row in Virginia to life in prison without parole.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of In the Featured Photo: Protestors holding a banner at a World Day Against the Death Penalty protest. Featured Photo Credit: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.


About the Author /

I have a deep interest in African history and current affairs. This is compounded by my Angolan nationality and the extensive traveling I have done within the continent. I have a BA in Hispanic studies from the University of Bristol. My interest in Latin American culture and politics was intensified by the time I spent working for a Colombian NGO and an Argentinian radio station.

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