Story at a glance

  • Virginia lawmakers passed legislation to ban the death penalty, which has the backing of the state’s governor.
  • The state will become the 23rd to stop executions and the first in the American South.
  • Research shows Black Americans are more likely to be executed under the death penalty than white Americans.

With the anticipated signature of Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia will go from one of the most prolific states in using the death penalty to the first in the American South to abolish capital punishment. 

“Over Virginia’s long history, this Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state. And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person,” Northam, Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said in a joint statement. “It’s time we stop this machinery of death.” 


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Twenty-two other states have done the same, including Virginia’s neighbor to the north, Maryland. In recent years, evidence has mounted of the racist use of the death penalty in the United States, where Black people have been overrepresented on death rows while killers of Black people are less likely to face the death penalty than people who kill white people.

The first recorded execution in the United States took place in Virginia, according to some historians, who cite the Jamestown Colony’s execution of Captain George Kendall in 1608 for spying for Spain. The Death Penalty Information Center reports a total of 1,277 executions in the state before the Supreme Court halted the practice in 1972. After it was reinstated in 1976, another 113 people were executed in Virginia, second only to Texas, with the last two in 2017. 


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"For far too long, Virginia has had the discriminatory death penalty on the books, which disproportionately takes the lives of people of color, the poor, and the mentally ill,” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, who is running for governor in the state's upcoming election, in a statement. “The death penalty is a feature of our Commonwealth’s racist past. It is far past time to abolish it.”

Two men remain on the state’s death row today, both Black. When Northam signs the bill, their sentences will be converted to life in prison without parole. 


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Published on Feb 22, 2021