Story at a glance
- On Wednesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) formally abolished the state’s capital punishment clause.
- The death penalty has racist roots and is associated with Jim Crow laws.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) abolished the state’s death penalty on Wednesday, bringing an end to the state’s legacy of capital punishment.
With both Democratic-controlled chambers of the Virginia General Assembly having passed legislation to abolish the death penalty earlier this year, the bill went to Northam’s desk for ratification.
The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) confirmed the signing in a statement.
“Virginia’s abolition of capital punishment is tremendously significant, both in terms of the death penalty’s continuing nationwide decline and as an [sic] historical marker of race relations in the United States. No state that has relied so heavily on capital punishment has ever before repealed its death penalty,” the press release said. “Going back to colonial times, Virginia has conducted more executions than any other U.S. jurisdiction and, in the modern era, it trails only Texas in the number of people it has put to death.”
Capital punishment in Virginia is historically linked to racist laws that punish Black Americans more severely than their white counterparts.
Prior to the Civil War, Virginia had different penalties for white and Black criminals and defendants.
Even in more modern times, the state disproportionately used the death penalty against Black Americans. Notably, from 1900 until in 1977 when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for crimes that did not result in a death, Virginia executed 73 Black men on charges of rape, attempted rape, or robbery. No white defendants were executed during the same time span.
Running parallel to this statistic, a total of 185 Black people have been sentenced to death for murder, as opposed to just 46 white people in the state’s history.
No individual has been sentenced to death in Virginia since 2011.
“The symbolic value of a legislature sitting in the former capital of the Confederacy dismantling this tool of racial oppression cannot be overstated,” DPIC officials wrote.
Virginia will become the 23rd state to abolish capital punishment, with 24 states still keeping capital punishment as a sentencing outcome.