Virginia becomes first southern US state to abolish death penalty

More than 1,300 inmates executed in state's 413-year history of capital punishment

Virginia governor Ralph Northam (left) looks over the electric chair in the death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center with operations director George Hinkle and warden Larry Edmonds before signing a Bill abolishing the death penalty in Virginia. Photograph: Steve Helber/AP

Virginia governor Ralph Northam (left) looks over the electric chair in the death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center with operations director George Hinkle and warden Larry Edmonds before signing a Bill abolishing the death penalty in Virginia. Photograph: Steve Helber/AP

 

Virginia has become the first southern state and the 23rd overall in the United States to abolish the death penalty. Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam signed a Bill on Wednesday to end capital punishment in the state amid rising opposition to the practice.

Before signing the Bill, Mr Northam pointed to Virginia’s 413-year history of capital punishment, during which it executed more than 1,300 inmates, more than any other state. He also noted racial disparities in the use of the death penalty: during the 20th century, he said, 296 of the 377 inmates Virginia executed for murder – about 79 per cent – were black.

“Ending the death penalty comes down to one fundamental question, one question: Is it fair?” Mr Northam said after he completed a tour of the state’s execution chamber. “For the state to apply this ultimate, final punishment, the answer needs to be yes. Fair means that it is applied equally to anyone, no matter who they are. And fair means that we get it right, that the person punished for the crime did the crime.

“But,” he added, “we all know that the death penalty cannot meet those criteria.”

Life in prison

The Bill, which the Virginia House and Senate passed last month, stipulates that the sentences of the remaining death row inmates be converted to life in prison without eligibility for parole. The inmates will also not qualify for good conduct allowance, sentence credits or conditional release.

The Bill’s signing comes as president Joe Biden faces pressure from members of his own party to commute the sentences of the remaining inmates on federal death row. It also follows a spate of executions carried out by the Trump administration that renewed calls from the left to abolish capital punishment.

In its final months, the administration executed 13 inmates, more than a fifth of the prisoners that the Bureau of Prisons considered to be on death row. The inauguration of Mr Biden – who promised during the campaign to work to end federal capital punishment – almost certainly marked the end of that string of executions.

But what Mr Biden plans to do with the remaining condemned inmates remains unclear. His new attorney general, Merrick Garland, has also expressed concerns about the death penalty. – New York Times