Virginia legislators appear poised to abolish the death penalty in the coming days, a step that would make it the first Southern state to end the practice of capital punishment.
A bill to end capital punishment passed the state Senate on Wednesday by a 21-17 margin. The state House of Delegates is set to take up companion legislation as early as Friday. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) supports an end to the death penalty.
“The practice is fundamentally inequitable. It is inhumane. It is ineffective. And we know that in some cases, people on death row have been found innocent,” Northam said after the Senate acted.
Virginia would be the 23rd state to have abolished the death penalty. Colorado legislators did so in 2020.
The move to end the death penalty is all the more notable for Virginia’s history as a leading practitioner of executions. More prisoners have been put to death in Virginia than in any other state, said Jackson Sasser, a historian at William & Mary College. The first execution in what eventually became the United States took place in 1608 in Jamestown, when Captain George Kendall was put to death by firing squad for participating in a conspirac
“This is earth shattering,” said David Kerr, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I never thought I would see the day when Virginia would abolish the death penalty.”
Virginia carried out 65 death sentences in the 1990s, and 32 in the 2000s. But capital punishment waned dramatically over the past decade, according to the Death Penalty Information Center; just eight prisoners were put to death over the past decade, the last two in 2017.
“Virginia juries have declined to impose death sentences for a decade now,” Sasser said. “That, like the General Assembly’s action, may reflect some deeper thinking about whether a legal system that accommodated lynching and still struggles to end extrajudicial killings deserves to take a life under color of law.”
Use of the death penalty nationwide has declined precipitously since the late 1990s. Data from the Death Penalty Information Center shows states executed just seven people in 2020, down from 22 in 2019 and only a fraction of the 300 or so who were put to death each year in the mid-to-late 1990s. Only one state, Texas, conducted more than one execution last year.
Former President TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE revived federal executions in his final months in office, when 10 federal inmates were put to death. But President Biden has pledged to end the federal government’s use of the death penalty.
Across the country, more than 2,500 inmates currently sit on death row. California has the largest number of death row inmates, at 724, though the state has not executed a prisoner since 2006.
Thirteen death row inmates in California have died of complications from the coronavirus, the same number as those the state has executed since the U.S. Supreme Court revived capital punishment as an acceptable option in 1976.
California and Virginia are two of seven states where legislators have introduced proposals to ban the death penalty this year. Action in the other five states — Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Texas, all controlled by Republican legislators — is less likely.