Virginia Abolishes Death Penalty as first southern state

Virginia Abolishes Death Penalty, Part of a Movement?

GREENSVILLE, Va. — Today Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam toured the death chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center before a formal and historic bill-signing ceremony for legislation abolishing capital punishment in this Southern state. Virginia has executed more people over a longer period of time than any other state, which is why, for advocates involved in the cause, it was the culmination of generations of advocacy and persuasion. Ultimately, the effort dovetailed with Democrats taking control of the General Assembly last year and the protests against police brutality sparked by the murder of George Floyd. 

“When I was young, I believed in an eye for an eye,” Northam explained. “But as I matured, my mind changed, and when I ran for office I committed to work on ending the death penalty in Virginia.”

Virginia is the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment are hoping the move might bring more momentum to their national cause. The last few years have seen a number of states ditch capital punishment: New Mexico in 2009, Connecticut in 2012, Delaware in 2016 and New Hampshire in 2019. 

Here in Virginia, lawmakers said the most persuasive argument was the lingering concern about the potential for innocent life to be taken because of a wrongful conviction.

“That is the one argument that nobody ever countered on the floor,” state Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat from just outside of Washington, during the ceremony.

We had this argument for two hours in the Senate, and not a single person could say how you justify killing one innocent person for every nine guilty people that you execute. Nobody can justify that

Sen. Scott Surovell

The state’s history with the death penalty stretches back to colonial days, when Capt. George Kendall was executed for treason. During the debate in the Senate, opponents of capital punishment pointed to a rise in the use of the death penalty right around the same time lynching was outlawed in the 1920s. The debate happened at a time when newly empowered Democrats were lobbying for other criminal-justice reforms, like legalizing marijuana and abolishing mandatory minimum sentences.

“All the cries of vengeance that you hear are valid and emotional and painful, but they don’t bring people back,” Del. Mike Mullin, a Democrat who is also a prosecutor, said during the ceremony. “That’s not justice.”

Republicans already signaled this will be an issue on the campaign trail later this year, when voters will be choosing a new governor after Northam steps down from a job he’s held since January 2018. 

Michael Pope is a reporter for Virginia Public Radio. He's an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria. He has reported for NPR, the New York Daily News and the Alexandria Gazette Packet. He has a master's degree in American Studies from Florida State University, and he is a former adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College. He is the author of four books.

Michael Pope is a reporter for Virginia Public Radio. He's an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria. He has reported for NPR, the New York Daily News and the Alexandria Gazette Packet. He has a master's degree in American Studies from Florida State University, and he is a former adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College. He is the author of four books.

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