February 05, 2021

Virginia, Second Most Prolific Death Penalty State, Moves Toward Abolition

By Samantha O'Connell, DPRP Intern
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has expressed his willingness to sign Bill 1165 which would abolish the state's death penalty.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has expressed his willingness to sign Bill 1165 which would abolish the state's death penalty.

Office of the Governor of Virginia

Update 2-5-21: On February 5, the House of Delegates passed HB2263, a bill to abolish the death penalty in Virginia, by a bipartisan vote of 57-41. The bill will now move on to the governor for signature. 

Update 2-4-21: On February 3, the Virginia Senate officially passed Bill 1165, which would abolish the death penalty in Virginia in all cases, with a party line vote of 21-17. The bill will now move on to the House of Delegates and then on to the Governor’s desk. The bill passed out of the Senate after GOP amendments to retain the death penalty in specific cases or to require the mandatory imposition of life without parole in aggravated murder cases failed. 

In response to the bill passing in the State Senate voting to abolish the death penalty, Virginia Governor Northam released the following statement: 

“Today’s vote in the Virginia Senate is a tremendous step toward ending the death penalty in our Commonwealth. Virginia has executed more people than any other state. The practice is fundamentally inequitable. It is inhumane. It is ineffective. And we know that in some cases, people on death row have been found innocent. It’s time for Virginia to join 22 other states and abolish the death penalty. I applaud every Senator who cast a courageous vote today, and I look forward to signing this bill into law.”

Virginia, the site of the first execution in the Thirteen Colonies and the state responsible for putting the second highest number of people to death in the modern era of the death penalty, may soon abolish capital punishment entirely. On the first day of the legislative session for 2021, three death penalty repeal bills were introduced in the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate, with two explicitly sponsored by Governor Ralph Northam. According to the governor, who sees this push for death penalty abolition as part of a greater mission of ensuring equal justice in the state, this effort is part of the state’s recent “good work on equity, especially criminal justice reform.” Attorney General Mark Herring, who supports the bill as well, repeated this sentiment, stating that “[death penalty] abolition must be part of our work to reform a flawed and imperfect criminal justice system.” 

With a 10-4 vote on January 18, the Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 1165 which would abolish the death penalty, including for the two prisoners left on Virginia’s death row whose capital sentences would be converted to sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. This bill was introduced by Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell with a Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Bill Stanley, signaling some degree of bipartisan support. As of January 26, the bill was also approved by the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee by a 12-4 vote, meaning it will now advance to the full Senate floor for discussion. 

Sen. Surovell remains confident that he will have the numbers to pass this bill, despite failed attempts to repeal the death penalty in years past. Although Surovell has always seen death penalty abolition as a priority, it was a political impossibility with GOP control over the Senate and the House of Delegates. In 2019, Democrats took full control of both houses of the Virginia General Assembly, but last year’s effort to pass an abolition bill was unsuccessful. And, despite passing the Senate with a significant amount of bipartisan support, another more moderate bill to prohibit the death penalty in cases of severe mental illness also fizzled out last year when a House subcommittee chose not to give it a hearing. This time, however, Surovell remains confident that with the support of a Republican like Senator Stanley, “we’ve got a shot,” even if Surovell doesn’t “have the support of [his] entire caucus” on this issue. 

If the bill passes and is signed by Governor Northam, Virginia will become the 23rd state, plus the District of Columbia, to abolish the death penalty and the first state of the Deep South and former Confederacy to do so. Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice, a group of twelve commonwealth attorneys in favor of major criminal justice reform, has been a vocal supporter of these repeal bills, writing, “[t]he death penalty is unjust, racially biased, and ineffective at deterring crime.” One of their members, current prosecutor and former defense attorney Jim Hingeley, testified at the Virginia Senate Judicial Committee’s January 18 hearing and has explained, “I represented four people charged with capital murder facing the death penalty. All of them were African American and that’s not coincidental. That’s how the death penalty is administered in Virginia. It’s racist.” When voicing support for abolition this month, faith leaders such as Rev. Dr. Duane Hardy, Rev. Dr. Keith Jones, Rev. James Page, and Rev. Dr. Marvin D. Warner also cited the statistic that nearly six times as many Black defendants as White defendants were executed in Virginia between 1908 and 1981.

Considering Virginia has executed about 1,400 people over the course of four hundred years, this reform would set a significant precedent for the 24 states that still allow for the death penalty. “Abolishing the death penalty here will also send a powerful abolition message across the country and world,” argued Tim Kaine, current U.S. Senator and former Virginia governor. 

Opponents of the repeal bill, however, take particular issue with individuals convicted of murdering police officers no longer having to face the death penalty. Notably, one of the two prisoners still on death row in Virginia was sentenced to death after being found guilty of killing Norfolk police officer Stanley Reaves. Former Republican Senator Bill Carrico, for instance, believes the bill should be revised so that that specific subset of defendants would still be eligible for capital punishment. Wayne Huggins, the executive director of the Virginia State Police Association, also testified before the Judiciary Committee on January 18 about abolishing the death penalty but instead urged its retention. Huggins argued that “from our perspective, [abolishing the death penalty] is injustice. It sends a terrible message to society in general and the law enforcement community in particular.” 

Despite Virginia’s aggressive use of the death penalty since the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Gregg v. Georgia, which allowed states to begin pursuing capital punishment once more, its use in the state has actually dropped sharply in recent years. Virginia’s last execution occurred in 2017, and no new death sentences have been imposed since 2011. This decrease matches the larger national trend away from the death penalty, with 34 states carrying out zero executions in the past 10 years, and a new Gallup poll showing that, for the first time in 34 years, the majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty.

The information and views provided in the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Death Penalty Representation Project’s blog do not constitute official statements by the ABA and do not represent official ABA policy. For more information, please visit our policy and statement pages.