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Virginia Set to be First Southern State to End Death Penalty

Feb. 22, 2021, 11:24 PM

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is expected to sign legislation abolishing the death penalty, making it the first state in the South and the 23rd overall to ban executions.

The shift became a near certainty on Monday when the Legislature approved a measure to end the practice that dates to the Jamestown settlement.

Virginia has executed more inmates than any other except Texas since the return of the modern death penalty in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“It matters any time a state abolishes the death penalty,” said the center’s executive director, Robert Dunham. “But the role Virginia has played in U.S. capital punishment, and the role Virginia’s death penalty has played as an instrument of racial oppression, make this development extraordinarily significant.”

Northam, who cited racial disparities in supporting abolition, is expected to sign the legislation.

“It is vital that our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably,” Northam and state Democratic leaders said in a statement following the Legislature’s action. “We all know the death penalty doesn’t do that. It is inequitable, ineffective, and inhumane.”

Republicans opposed repeal. State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R) cautioned during debate over the law against doing away with the punishment for “savage crimes.”

In its 400-year history, the commonwealth has executed more than 1,300 people. After effectively striking down capital punishment in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it again starting in 1976, after which 113 of the state’s executions took place.

There are two remaining Virginia death-row inmates, whose sentences will be converted to life-without-parole.

Twenty seven states, plus the federal government and the U.S. military, will still have the death penalty on the books. In practice, executions are carried out in a handful of states, like Texas.

The Covid-19 pandemic delayed some state executions in 2020, but the Trump administration resumed federal executions after a 17-year hiatus. President Joe Biden pledged as a candidate to end federal executions and encouraged states to do the same.

Biden’s attorney general nominee, D.C. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, said during his confirmation hearing on Monday that he has “developed concerns about the death penalty.”

Garland pointed to what he called issues with exonerations, the arbitrariness and randomness of capital punishment’s application, and its disparate impact on Black people and other communities of color.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Crawley at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; Tom P. Taylor at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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