Virginia’s history with the death penalty goes back to 1608 when it conducted the first recorded execution in what is now the U.S. Four centuries later, the Commonwealth has executed over 1,300 people, more than any other state.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Virginia has put 113 people to death since the U.S. Supreme Court began allowing executions again in 1976. That number is second only to Texas at 571. Recently, we have seen a decline in the number of state executions. There are currently only two prisoners on Virginia’s death row, and the state has not condemned anyone to death in ten years, with the last execution in 2017.
That 2017 execution was a turning point in Virginia’s capital punishment politics because then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, did not intervene to stop the execution of a mentally ill man.
Gov. Northam was elected to take his place after coming out strongly against the death penalty. This trend was heightened when former President Trump resumed federal executions in mid-2020, putting 13 people to death in just over six months, including a Virginia man executed just days before Trump’s term ended.
Even with public support for capital punishment eroding, Gov. Northam had to work hard to convince several prominent Democrats, including the state senate majority leader, who had previously endorsed the death penalty, to oppose it. Jennifer McClellan, the senator who sponsored the bill and vice chair of the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus, said, “momentum came from the rash of federal executions and Mr. Northam’s drive to support issues of racial equity for Black Virginians.” The final vote was largely along party lines, with only two of the 43 Republicans in the House of Delegates and one of 18 in the Senate joining unanimous Democratic support for the ban.
Democratic opposition to capital punishment was based on several factors, including a general moral reluctance to put the state in the business of determining life or death. However, the action was in response to racial bias in the death penalty’s application. These Democrats cited studies that show Black defendants are more likely to be executed than whites.
Republicans who opposed the ban said their stance was on behalf of the victims of violent crime, and claimed racism was an issue in the past. Republican Senator Mark Obenshain said capital punishment was appropriate for what he called “savage crimes.”
The very idea of Virginia abolishing capital punishment would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Even though Barack Obama won the state in 2008 and 2012, both houses of the state legislature were conservative until the blue wave of 2018. Dissatisfaction with President Trump and his policies drove that wave and has pushed a state that was already left-leaning into solid progressive territory.
Bod Holsworth, longtime Virginia political analyst, observed that the death penalty vote, “symbolizes the transformative change in Virginia’s political culture in the last thirty years.”
That change has borne tremendous fruit in the current legislative session. The state has voted to increase access to abortion, remove Confederate monuments, tighten gun laws, and legalize marijuana.
With passage of the HB2263, Virginia became the 23rd state in the nation to abolish the death penalty.
Source: nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com
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