Virginia lawmakers create legislation to abolish the death penalty, making Virginia the first southern state to do so


Virginia, one of the most prolific users of capital punishment, approved two pieces of legislation to abolish the death penalty on Feb. 22. The state Senate approved a House bill that bans executions and establishes a maximum punishment of life in prison without parole, and an identical Senate bill passed in the House. While there is no date set for when Governor Ralph Northam plans to sign the bills into law, Northam plans to sign both. 

The sentences of the two men currently on death row in Virginia will be commuted to life in prison without parole. The state’s last execution was in 2017.

Since its first execution in 1608, Virginia has executed more people than any other state. 113 people were executed after the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976 with Gregg v. Georgia.

Pressure to recognize and correct racial injustice has influenced voters and lawmakers to reexamine the history of the death penalty, which has strong roots in the Jim Crow era. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, African Americans made up 75 percent of executed inmates between 1910 and 1950. Historically, Black men are more likely to be put on death row than individuals of other races, which the EJI attributes to the south’s record of racially motivated lynching.

The ACLU reports 55 percent of inmates currently on death row are non-white and murder cases that involve a white victim are more likely to result in execution. According to the EJI, 73 Black men were executed for crimes that did not result in death between 1900 and 1977, while no white men were.

In recent years, states have leaned away from the use of capital punishment; in 2020, only seven states carried out executions. Advanced DNA analysis has revealed death row convictions of 28 innocent individuals since 1973, which may have contributed to a decline in public support for the death penalty. According to a Gallup poll, just 55 percent of Americans supported the death penalty in 2020 compared to 67 percent in 2000.

Junior Summer Brown cited concern about wrongful conviction as one of the reasons she opposes the death penalty, calling it a “highly abusable tool.” She continued, explaining that executing guilty individuals denies them genuine punishment for their crime.

“By killing the person using the death penalty, you immediately end an issue without the consequences being addressed properly,” she said. “If you sentence someone to life in prison, they must deal with the fact that they took a person’s life and must experience what it is like to be denied a full life, rather than not experiencing it through the death penalty.”

Recent graduate Jared Purcell supports the penalty’s abolition, believing an eye-for-an-eye approach to crime perpetuates a cycle of retaliatory violence without providing justice to victims.

“It’s just more pain,” said Purcell, explaining that he has considered the possibility of criminals feeling emboldened by knowing they won’t face execution but still believes it is inhumane and ineffective. “We don’t have the ability to weigh or value life.”

Kaitt Mankin, a junior, is proud that Virginia is working to decrease injustice in the legal system but still has conflicted feelings about the punishment as a whole.

“I don’t think anybody should die but I think there are some really bad people in the world,” she said. “It scares me — the thought that they could ever get out of jail.” She thinks the death penalty is appropriate for the “Ted Bundys of the world” but worries that wrongful convictions, racial bias and lack of consistency in sentencing make its use unfair. 

“I don’t think it solves anything,” said Mankin. “The more I hear about it, the more I understand why it’s so problematic.”