Virginia first southern US state to abolish death penalty

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Virginia on Wednesday became the first southern United States (US) state to abolish the death penalty and the 23rd state in the country to end capital punishment.

Democratic Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation repealing the death penalty in Virginia, saying it was “the moral thing to do”.

Virginia is the first of the southern states that made up the Confederacy during the 1861-65 US Civil War to eliminate capital punishment. Virginia has carried out more executions – nearly 1,400 – than any other of the 50 US states since its founding as a colony in the early 1600s.

Northam signed the bill ending the death penalty at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, which houses the state’s execution chamber. A total of 102 people have been executed at Greensville since it opened in 1991. Virginia last carried out an execution in 2017.

“Signing this new law is the right thing to do,” Northam said. “It is the moral thing to do to end the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill abolishing the death penalty at the Greensville Correctional Center. PHOTO: AFP

“Virginia’s history – we have much to be proud of – but not the history of capital punishment,” he said.

The governor described the use of the death penalty in Virginia as “fundamentally flawed” and racially biased.

“Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death,” he said. “We know that the system doesn’t always get it right,” he said. “We can’t give out the ultimate punishment without being 100 per cent sure that we’re right.”

Northam said that in the 20th Century, 296 of the 377 defendants executed in Virginia for murder were Black. He cited studies that found a defendant is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death if the victim of a crime is white than if the victim is Black.

The European Union (EU) applauded what it called the latest step in a growing trend to abandon capital punishment.

“The death penalty is incompatible with human dignity and the right to life, constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment, and does not have any proven deterrent effect,” the bloc said in a statement.

The Virginia House of Delegates voted 57-41 last month to end capital punishment, two days after the state Senate approved a similar bill.

Virginia has conducted the second-most executions after Texas since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

The state housed the capital of the pro-slavery South during the Civil War and was also the site of numerous lynchings of African Americans.

The two prisoners currently on Death Row in Virginia will have their sentences converted to life without parole.

The death penalty has now been abolished in 23 states, while three others – California, Oregon and Pennsylvania – have observed a moratorium on its use.