• February 27, 2021

Virginia Set Record for Executions, Now Set to Abolish Death Penalty

 Virginia Set Record for Executions, Now Set to Abolish Death Penalty

By Denny Muller

RICHMOND, Vir. — Virginia has executed more people over a longer period of time than any other state, a tradition that stretches back to colonial days when Captain George Kendall was executed for treason. That’s about to be a thing of the past, after both the the House of Delegates and state Senate both approved a bill to make Virginia the first state in the South to ditch capital punishment. It’s now awaiting a signature by Gov. Ralph Northam, who has been a vocal supporter of ending capital punishment in Virginia

“A person is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death when the victim is white, than when the victim is Black,” the Democratic governor said in his State of the Commonwealth Address last month. “It’s time to change the law, and end the death penalty in Virginia.”

State officials estimate abolishing the death penalty will save taxpayers about $3.8 million a year because it would eliminate 29 employees of the capital defenders offices. Democrats campaigned on a platform of ending capital punishment, and the legislation the governor will sign in the next few days is a realization of that goal heading into an election year for Virginia, where voters will select a new governor this year as well as all 100 seats in the House of Delegates.

“The death penalty is reserved for the most pathological, most heinous crimes that are committed against people,” former state Sen. Bill Carrico, a Republican from rural Southwest Virginia, said. “When they commit these crimes they commit them against you and I. They commit them against law-abiding people.”

Republicans already signaled that their argument to voters will be that the Democrats are the party of abolishing the death penalty and legalizing marijuana, dramatic moves for a state that had been in the grip of Republicans for a generation before Democrats seized control of the General Assembly last year. Now the political dynamics in the state have drifted dramatically in Virginia, where many prosecutors are hailing the move to end the death penalty as a triumph for criminal-justice reform.

“The death penalty is racist,” Steve Descano — the elected prosecutor in Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest jurisdiction — said. 

Michael Lee Pope

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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