Virginia Governor Ralph Northam Wednesday signed into law a bill whereby the death penalty has been abolished after over 400 years in the force, thus making his state the 23rd to take such a step.
The legislative decision is particularly significant since Virginia, with 113 executions since 1976, was second only to Texas since the Supreme Court reallowed capital punishment in 1976. Virginia is the first state in what was the Confederacy to officially abolish the ultimate sanction. The state was one of the most prolific users of the penalty dating back to the first execution in 1608.
There is no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the South, or this nation, Northam said, shortly before signing the legislation at the Greensville Correctional Centre where executions were previously carried out. The state legislature passed bills ending the practice in late February.
Northam called capital punishment fundamentally flawed and noted that it was disproportionately levied against black people. Virginia has a long and complicated history like other Southern states, Northam said. The racism and discrimination of our past still echo in our systems today and as we continue to step beyond the burden of that past, it is vital that we also change the systems in which inequality continues to fester.
Overall, Virginia has executed over 1,300 people — more than any other state, and in the 20th century, more than 296 of the 377 defendants that Virginia executed for murder were black. And since 1976, nearly half of the 113 people executed in the state were black, as are both men sitting currently on death row and whose sentences will be automatically commuted to life imprisonment.
The Death Penalty Information Center has reported both death penalty sentences and executions have reached historic lows nationwide.