Virginia to Become First Southern State to Abolish Death Penalty

A bill to abolish the death penalty is winding its way through the Virginia state legislature. The bill has passed the senate and is expected to soon be signed by Gov. Ralph Northam. Once approved, it would make Virginia the 23rd state in the country to ban the death penalty, and the first Southern state in the U.S.

Advocates for prison reform applaud the decision and have acknowledged what a big deal the change would be for the state.

Virginia is “historically one of the nation’s most prolific death-penalty states,” according to The Washington Post’s Laura Vozzella, and in “the one-time capital of the Confederacy, the death penalty has had a strong connection to the commonwealth’s history of racial injustice.”

“State law used to differentiate capital and noncapital crimes based on the race of the perpetrator and the race of the victim,” Vozzella reported. “Once that discrimination was declared unconstitutional, it persisted in practice due to the discretion afforded all-White juries.”

Even as that law was ultimately stripped from the books, efforts to abolish the death penalty itself within the state have come and gone over the years. However, the movement once again regained steam in the summer of 2020 following the death of George Floyd — and this time it appears to have worked.

In addition to outlawing what many consider a barbaric practice from the state, critics of the death penalty are also quick to point out the numerous disparities in how it is called for and in which cases it is ultimately levied out. More than 55% of inmates on death row are nonwhites, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union, showing a clear racial bias that exists for its usage even today.

Once Gov. Northam signs the bill and the death penalty becomes illegal in Virginia, it will end a long and dark history of its usage in the state — one that includes the following grime stats:

  • Virginia has practiced capital punishment since colonial days, executing a supposed Spanish spy in the Jamestown Colony all the way back in 1608
  • A total of 1,390 people have been put to death in the state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center
  • Between 1900 and 1969, 73 Black men were sentenced to death in Virginia. No white men were given the death penalty during the same period
  • Virginia has executed 113 people since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. This number puts the state behind only Texas in terms of states who have executed the most inmates.


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