RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) plans to introduce legislation aimed at abolishing the death penalty, an effort that would make Virginia the first state in the South to end capital punishment if it passes.
Measures to end capital punishment have already been submitted for this year’s General Assembly session, including bills from gubernatorial hopeful Del. Lee Carter (D- Manassas) and Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax).
Since the U.S. Supreme Court let states resume the death penalty in 1976, Virginia has conducted the second most executions, 113, behind only Texas. Despite this, the last execution in Virginia was in 2017.
Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, confirmed that the governor will advocate for ending the death penalty during Wednesday’s State of the Commonwealth address. The following is text of an excerpt of Northam’s planned remarks on the issue, as prepared for delivery:
“But when we all agree that a crime deserves the strongest punishment we can give, it’s still vital to make sure our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably. We know the death penalty doesn’t do that. But make no mistake—if you commit the most heinous crimes, you should spend the rest of your days in prison.
“But here are the facts about the death penalty. Virginia has executed more people than any other state—more than 1,300 people. And here’s another truth: a person is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death when the victim is white, than when the victim is Black.
“For all of these reasons, the death penalty is much less common in Virginia than before. Today, only two people are on death row. It’s time to change the law, and end the death penalty in Virginia.”
Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk), an attorney who is running for attorney general, said he would be a chief co-patron for legislation filed for 2021.
“I believe deeply in my soul that the death penalty is abhorrent and must be abolished immediately,” Del. Jones said in a statement. “The Commonwealth shouldn’t be in the business of killing its citizens, plain and simple, and it is time we meet the moment and end this despicable practice once and for all. It is no secret that this practice impacts Black citizens more than any other group, and this is not only alarming but a necessary reform to our justice system that treats every person fairly and similarly under the law.”
The current Virginia attorney general, Mark Herring, shared a statement supporting the proposal from Northam.
“It is time for Virginia to end the death penalty and I will support Governor Northam’s efforts to make it happen this year,” Herring, who is seeking a third term in office, said. “Its abolition must be part of our work to reform a flawed and imperfect criminal justice system.”
Data from the Death Penalty Information Center says that 25 states still have the death penalty, 22 don’t and three have moratoriums imposed by their governors.