Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation Wednesday abolishing the death penalty in Virginia, which has executed more people than any other state in the nation.
Virginia is the first Southern state from the old Confederacy to end a practice that was rooted in slavery and racial lynching. The government has executed more than 1,300 people since its founding as a colony in the 1600s.
“There is no place today for the death penalty in the commonwealth, in the South, or in this nation,” Northam, a Democrat, said during the ceremonial signing at the Greensville Correctional Center near Jarratt, where the state houses its execution chamber.
The dramatic shift is a result of a convergence of multiple factors, including efforts to reform the criminal justice system, bringing racial equality into systems — sparked by protests after George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis in 2020 — and changing public opinion on the death penalty.
“The racism and discrimination of our past still echoes in our systems today,” Northam said. “As we continue to step beyond the burden of that past, it’s vital we also change the systems where inequality continues to fester.”
Even Democrats who supported expanding the death penalty in the past two decades joined in voting to get rid of it this year. Northam also voted in the past to expand the death penalty.
“I never dreamed Virginia would change as fast as it did,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who carried the Senate bill.
Surovell said that one of the first bills he took a vote on in 2010 was a measure to expand the death penalty. He said many Democrats in the House — where he was serving at the time — voted in favor of it.
“It was where public opinion was, it was where the parties were,” he said. “Being against capital punishment was not a popular position in 2010.”
Surovell said that when Senate Democrats met two years ago — after Democrats took control of the House of Delegates and Senate — they discussed what their priorities would be. He suggested ending the death penalty. Only a few people raised their hands to support making it a top issue.
Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, said the death penalty was an issue he struggled with. He’s voted in the past to expand its application. He said he still believes there are especially heinous situations that merit someone being put to death. But he said it’s those who are innocent that are put to death that’s weighed on him.
“It makes me shudder that we allowed the execution of people who weren’t guilty,” Deeds said. “That’s too much of a price to pay for society that’s going to run the risk that we’re going to put to death innocent people.”
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, voted to expand the death penalty in the past, because he said that was where public opinion was at the time. His shift has more to do with the inequitable use of the death penalty.
Race has played a significant factor in who has been executed in Virginia. Black people make up about 20% of Virginia’s population but 46% of people executed since 1982.
From 1900 to 1969, Virginia executed 68 men for rape or attempted rape, and all of them were Black. No white man was ever executed for rape or attempted rape.
“Some people may deserve it under horrible circumstances, but once you open the door like that, there are still people who could be given the death penalty when they’re innocent,” Edwards said. “On balance, we’d be better off without the death penalty because of the risk of putting innocent people to death and its inconsistent application.”
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, cast one vote in favor of a bill to execute people who are accessories to murder. It was during a committee meeting in 2009. She didn’t vote for it again as it moved through the legislative process.
“I remember that I thought, ‘This is heinous,’ and it seemed like a right matter of policy,” Herring said.
She said what especially disturbed her was that in 2016, the legislature — then controlled by Republicans — and then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, pushed to keep secret the identities of suppliers of lethal injection drugs.
Virginia only has two people currently on death row: Anthony Juniper and Thomas Porter. Under the new law, their sentences will be converted to life in prison, and they will not be eligible for parole or conditional release.
Democrats opted not to include life without the possibility of parole in the final legislation, something Republicans had asked for. Although the measure had some bipartisan support.
Advocates for eliminating the death penalty focused on a handful of Democrats who favored it and voted to expand it in the past. Rachel Sutphin told lawmakers the death penalty is ineffective and outdated. Her father, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Sutphin, was killed by William Morva in Montgomery County in 2006. Morva was put to death in 2008, the last person to be executed in Virginia. She pleaded with McAuliffe to stop the execution.
“Mr. Morva’s execution brought no solace to me, but it strengthened my resolve that the death penalty needs to be abolished,” she said. “With the abolition of the death penalty, families like mine will no longer suffer the long process of mandatory death penalty appeals.”