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Virginia State Capitol Building. Photo: Shutterstock
Virginia State Capitol Building. Photo: Shutterstock

Virginia to abolish the death penalty in a show of political evolution

The move comes after a series of federal executions to end the Trump administration’s time in the White House.

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Since gaining control of the state Legislature in 2019, Virginia Democrats have introduced a sequence of progressive laws on abortion access, gun control and the removal of Confederate monuments. 

Now, they are set to become the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty, showing the result of rising liberal power in a state that’s executed more people since the 1970s than any other except for Texas. 

The action follows a series of federal executions in the final months of the Trump administration, such as Lisa Montgomery and Dustin Higgs, which placed the topic of capital punishment back into the national spotlight.

On Friday, Feb. 5, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a ban on executions, shortly after the State Senate approved a similar measure on Wednesday, Feb. 3. Through a rejection to former President Donald Trump, the state experienced a blue wave in the November 2019 election, leading to Democrats holding majorities in both chambers. 

Gov. Ralph Northam, who has been an enthusiastic advocate for progressive laws, pledged to sign the bill, claiming that the move is long overdue. 

“It’s important that we shut down the machinery of death here in Virginia,” Northam said in an interview on Thursday, Feb. 4. 

Gov. Northam made it a point to highlight how the death penalty disproportionately impacts Black people, citing a case in which Virginia nearly executed an innocent Black man in 1985 who was cleared by DNA evidence. 

Seventeen of the 18 Republicans in the Senate opposed the ban, insisting that certain crimes are so awful that execution is a perfectly justifiable punishment. 

Several Democratic officials have also become more outspoken about seeking to abolish the death penalty, including Gov. Northam, who opposed the practice during a 2017 debate, shortly after fellow Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe refused to halt the execution of a mentally-ill man. 

Bob Holsworth, a veteran political analyst in the state, pointed out on Thursday that these new debates are symbolic of Virginia’s shift in political culture over the last 30 years. 

The Trump administration’s hurried rampage of execution contributed to the urgency to take action for many Virginia legislators. 

After a 17-year hiatus, lethal injections resumed in the middle of last year, and 13 people were put to death, including a man from Virginia

“I heard more from people saying it’s time to end the death penalty during those executions than I have before,” said Jennifer McClellan, a Democratic candidate for Virginia governor in 2021 and a sponsor of the bill that passed in the State Sentate. 

“The bill was filed last year, but the rash of executions just put the issue front and center for some people who hadn’t thought about it before,” she continued. 

Ms. McClellan is also the vice chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, and said that the push to end the practice was part of Gov. Northam’s mission to advance racial equity for Black residents. 

According to McClellan, the drive was a result of a blackface scandal in early 2019 that almost forced the governor to resign.

“This is his final session, this is the final chance to secure a legacy,” McClellan explained. 

When Gov. Northam signs the final bill, following the reconciliation of the differences in the companion bills passed by both chambers, Virginia will be the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty. 

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