Virginia Becomes First Southern State to Abolish Death Penalty – State Executed More People Than Any Other State


By Ankita Joshi and Ned Meiners

GREENSVILLE COUNTY, VA – In its 400-year history, Virginia has executed more than 1,300 people, which is more than any other state.

However, on the morning of Tuesday, March 24, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill putting an end to the death penalty in Virginia. It is the 23rd state, and the first southern one, to do so.

Northam made a statement outside the Greensville Correctional Center, which houses Virginia’s execution chamber. “It is a powerful thing to stand in the room, where people have been put to death.” Northam stated.

“Signing this law is the right thing to do; it is the moral thing to do to end the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he added.

The Governor cited the fact that innocent people have been on death row in Virginia and other states. “The death penalty is fundamentally flawed. Most importantly, we know the system doesn’t always get it right,” stated Northam.

Northam highlighted the case of Earl Washington, Jr., a Virginia man who was wrongfully convicted in 1984 following a coerced confession. His execution was stayed just nine days before he was scheduled to die.

“All over the country more than 170 people have been released from death row since 1973 due to evidence of their innocence. That is simply wrong. We can’t give out the ultimate punishment without being one hundred percent sure that we’re right. And we can’t sentence people to that ultimate punishment knowing that the system doesn’t work the same for everyone,” he said.

Gov. Northam also explained that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to African-Americans. “Ending the death penalty comes down to one fundamental question: is it fair?”

He elaborated, “Fair means 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 does not fit that criteria.”

The application of the death penalty in Virginia is rife with racial bias. In the 20th century, 296 of the 377 individuals executed for murder in Virginia were Black, and since 1976, 52 of the 113 individuals executed for murder in the state were Black as well.

There is clear racial bias according to the victims of the crime as well. In Virginia, if the victim is white, the defendant is three times more likely to receive the death penalty than if the victim is Black.

Northam called on Virginia and the South, to reckon with this history.

“Virginia has a long and complicated history like other southern states. The racism and discrimination in our past still echoes in our systems today… it is vital to change the institutions that allow inequality to fester,” he said.

State Senator Scott Surovell, who sponsored the bill, described how opinion had shifted in the state. As recently as 2010, the legislature expanded the application of the death penalty. In 2016, state representatives voted to continue the practice of lethal injection with little opposition.

However, over the last 10 years, particularly in light of recent protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, Virginians have been open to criminal justice reform, he said.

“People need to understand what the history of the death penalty is,” said Surovell, “You saw a direct correlation between the rise of the death penalty by the government, and the end of lynching. The connection is really undeniable.”

Senator Surovell highlighted the fact that no one in any of his meetings leading up to this moment were able to provide a justification for the killing of innocent people. He called attention to the significance that this “exoneration issue” has played in getting the bill passed.

Different groups such as Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, The Virginia Catholic Conference, and the Virginia ACLU were all also recognized for their years-long efforts to abolish the death penalty.

Miriam Krinsky, Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution, applauded Virginia for taking this step, noting, “For a state with such a long history of executions to abolish capital punishment is evidence of the immense progress that can be made on this issue and an important recognition that every human life has value and dignity.”

Krinsky urged the nation to “exemplify a justice system grounded in racial equity and fairness” by following in Virginia’s footsteps and “bringing an end to the death penalty in this nation, once and for all.”

Rev. LaKeisha Cook addressed the audience before Northam signed the bill, and acknowledged the racial animus that motivated the use of the death penalty, and looked to a more equitable future.

“Today we start a new chapter, embracing the possibility of a new evidence-based approach to public safety, one that values the dignity of all human beings, and is focused on transforming the justice system into one that is rooted in fairness, accountability and redemption,” the Rev. Cook said.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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