Legislation abolishing Virginia’s death penalty received final approval from legislators Feb. 22 and is on its way to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has pledged to sign it.
When he does, the Commonwealth will become the 23rd state to end capital punishment and the first Southern state to do so.
“Everyone is just excited because this ends the injustice of the death penalty in Virginia and positions the state to make history,” said LaKeisha Cook, a Baptist minister who serves as the justice reform organizer with Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which has rallied religious support against capital punishment in Virginia.
The center’s months-long campaign included lay and clergy petition drives, a Zoom press conference, vigils at historic lynching sites and pleas for citizens to contact their representatives in favor of the legislation.
The involvement of a broad array of faith groups and denominations, including many Black Baptist leaders, lent moral weight both to claims of the brutality and racism inherent in state executions and to the intrinsic human and redemptive value of condemned prisoners, Cook said. “The faith community absolutely helped push this across the line by making a difference with legislators.”
“The faith community absolutely helped push this across the line by making a difference with legislators.”
The Feb. 22 action saw the Virginia House of Delegates approve the Senate version of the bill 57-43, and the Senate endorse the House version 22-16. The measures were identical and contained no amendments despite several attempts.
Death penalty opponents noted that Virginia has executed close to 1,400 people dating back to colonial times and that the vast majority of them were African American. They also repeatedly reminded lawmakers that all current death row prisoners are Black.
“It is vital that our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably. We all know the death penalty doesn’t do that. It is inequitable, ineffective and inhumane,” Northam and other Democratic leaders said in a joint statement issued shortly after the votes. “Over Virginia’s long history, this Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state. And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person. It’s time we stop this machinery of death.”
The action also generated attention from death penalty opponents around the nation.
“Virginia is one stroke of the pen from making history as the first Confederate state to repeal the death penalty,” said Sarah Craft, death penalty program director for Equal Justice USA. “To evolve from having the nation’s most recorded executions — and a deep legacy of lynchings — to this moment is truly remarkable.”
Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty responded with praise for Republicans in both houses who joined the Democratic majority to vote for abolition.
“Republicans are turning against the death penalty due to the risk of executing someone who is innocent, the death penalty’s high costs, as well as due to their pro-life beliefs,” said Hannah Cox, senior national manager. “As in the last two states to end the death penalty — Colorado and New Hampshire — GOP lawmakers in Virginia are at the forefront of scrapping the death penalty.”