RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia has become the first southern U.S. state to abolish the death penalty after Governor Northam signed two measures into law, following passage in the democratically controlled General Assembly.
The ban on capital punishment makes the commonwealth’s highest criminal sentence life in prison without the possibility of parole, and signals an end to another state government with controversial histories of putting people on death row.
“Virginia’s history we have much to be proud of but not the history of capital punishment,” the governor said outside Greensville Correctional Center Wednesday, the location of the state’s execution chamber.
Northam praised the abolition measure, saying 1,300 people have been executed in Virginia over 400 years—more than any other state–noting Virignia becomes the twenty third state to bar capital punishment.
Northam toured the execution room today; its lights on for a final time. On site, equipment included the electric chair which the governor’s office said Virginia has used for decades.
“The death penalty is fundamentally flawed. Most importantly, we know that the system doesn’t always get it right,” Northam said.
The governor echoed the story of Earl Washington Jr. who was sentenced to death in 1984 for rape and murder.
Washington was taken off death row just days before he was slated to die, DNA evidence providing a revelation.
Northam said 296 of the 377 people executed during the 20th centruy were black—78 percent. A central argument for those in favor of abolishing the death penalty: black people have been disproportionately put on death row.
State Senator Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfied) voted against the senate verison of bill; arguing capital punishment should be reserved for rare and extreme cases.
8News asked Chase for her response to the pro-abolition argument that the death penalty disproportionately impacts black people.
“I don’t care what color someone’s skin is, it’s whether ‘did they do the crime or not?’ I think that’s what we should be focused on. If there are injustices, they need to be corrected but, you know, if a certain group is doing the crimes, then they should be behind bars,” Chase said.