With Northam’s signature, Virginia will become first Southern state to abolish the death penalty

Capitol Connection

FILE – This Oct. 9, 2014, file photo shows the gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. Oklahoma is planning to resume executing death-row inmates, five years after lethal injections were put on hold following a series of death-chamber mishaps, state officials announced Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia is on the verge of becoming the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty after lawmakers gave final approval Monday to two bills that would repeal the use of capital punishment, sending the legislation to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) for his signature.

The Virginia Senate passed a House bill that removes executions from the list of punishments in Virginia Code and makes life in prison without the possibility of parole the maximum sentence the commonwealth can implement.

The Senate voted 22-16 on Monday, with state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) joining Democrats, to approve the measure. The House approved the state Senate’s own version of the bill, 57-43, not long after senators voted. Two GOP members, Del. Jeff Campbell (R-Smyth County) and Del. Carrie Coyner (R-Chesterfield), voted in favor of the legislation.

Northam endorsed the effort before the 2021 General Assembly session and seems poised to sign the legislation, calling the death penalty “inequitable, ineffective, and inhumane” in a joint statement with the state’s Democratic leadership moments after the state Senate approved the House’s bill.

“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, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) wrote in the statement. “It’s time we stop this machinery of death.”

“Thanks to the vote of lawmakers in both chambers, Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended use of the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all,” the statement continued.

The legislation would commute the death sentences of the two offenders currently on death row in Virginia to life without the possibility of parole. It redefines capital murder as aggravated murder and requires a judge to sentence every person convicted moving forward to life in prison.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Virginia conducted the nation’s first execution and has executed more people, nearly 1,400, in its long history than any other state.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court let states resume the death penalty in 1976, Virginia has conducted the second most executions at 113, behind only Texas. Despite this, the last execution in Virginia was in 2017. 

Twenty-five states still have the death penalty, 22 don’t and three have moratoriums imposed by their governors, according to Death Penalty Information Center. Once Northam signs the legislation, Virginia would become the 23rd state to end the use of capital punishment.

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