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Virginia legislature passes bill abolishing death penalty; governor set to sign

Virginia legislature passes bill abolishing death penalty; governor set to sign
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The Virginia House of Delegates on Friday passed legislation abolishing the death penalty, a historic step that is set to make the state the first in the South to end the practice of capital punishment.

The House bill passed by a 57-41 vote just two days after a companion bill succeeded in the state Senate by a 21-17 vote on Wednesday. The legislation will soon head to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who has vowed to sign it.

“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 in a statement after the Senate vote.

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Virginia will be the 23rd state to abolish capital punishment. Colorado legislators did so in 2020, and six other states — California, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Texas — have introduced proposals to ban the death penalty this year.

Virginia's history with the death penalty extends back more than 400 years, to when Capitan George Kendall was executed in colonial Jamestown for spying in 1608.

Since then, more than 1,300 have been put to death in Virginia, more than any other state, though its executions waned dramatically in recent decades, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

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Virginia carried out 65 death sentences in the 1990s, 32 in the early 2000s and just eight the last 10 years.

Its last execution was nearly four years ago, and the state currently only has two death row inmates, down from a peak of 40 in 1998, according to The Virginian-Pilot

The new law means those two prisoners will eventually have their sentences retroactively changed to life in prison.