On March 24th at around 2pm EDT, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam officially signed HB2263 into law, abolishing the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia. With the passing of this historic legislation, Virginia has become the 23rd state, and the first in South, to eliminate capital punishment entirely. About a month after both the House and Senate approved abolition bills, Governor Northam’s signature now means all 15 of Virginia’s capital offenses will qualify as aggravated murder, punishable by a life sentence instead of the death penalty. For the two prisoners currently on the state’s death row, their sentences will be converted to life without parole. Virginia has carried out a record 1390 executions since its formation as a state, and it is second only to Texas in modern-era executions, though no Virginia jury has imposed the death penalty since 2011. Besides executing more people than any other state in American history, Virginia has executed the highest percentage of its death-row prisoner population as well, a statistic partially attributable to poor representation and particularly strict procedural rules for appeals.
The event was broadcasted live from Greensville Correctional Center, the location of the state’s death chamber, which Gov. Northam toured earlier in the day. Before signing the bill, Northam discussed the disturbing history of capital punishment in Virginia that led him to supporting death penalty abolition and invited other proponents of the bill to speak. “There’s no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the South, or in this nation,” Northam stated, citing the demonstrable racial disparities in the death penalty’s application in Virginia and nationwide. Of the 377 individuals that Virginia executed for murder in the 20th century, he noted, 296 were Black. “It is not fair. It is applied differently based on who you are. And the system has gotten it wrong…Justice and punishment are not the same thing.”
The livestream also featured remarks from Sen. Scott Surovell and Del. Mike Mullin, sponsors of the bills that passed in the Virginia Senate and House respectively, as well as Jayne Barnard from Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Reverend LaKeisha Cook from the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. Sen. Surovell, who remembers in 2009 being one of only about 20 Virginia Senators to vote against expanding the death penalty, praised Northam’s decision as a key step to “restor[ing] Virginia to its position of leadership not just in the county but in the world as a society, a government that values civil rights.” Highlighting the Commonwealth’s racist legacy regarding the death penalty, Rev. Cook referenced Virginia statutes from 1848 that allowed a Black person to be executed for crimes that would result in just three or more years of prison for a white person.
A lifelong prosecutor who has overseen approximately 10,000 cases, Del. Mike Mullin raised major concerns about the number of innocent individuals sentenced to death and the overall failure of due process: “The evidence is clear. Use of the death penalty is riddled with wrongful convictions, inadequate representation, and racial bias.” In his initial speech, Northam raised similar concerns about innocence and the death penalty, sharing the story of Earl Washington Jr., an innocent man sent to Virginia’s death row based on a coerced confession and spared just nine days before his scheduled execution thanks to the assistance of fellow death row prisoner Joseph Giarratano. Mr. Washington had no legal counsel at all until Giarratano stepped in to recruit a pro bono law firm to provide representation and seek a stay from the courts.
Jayne Barnard celebrated the possibility that funding for expensive capital murder trials could now be reallocated to help victims’ families afford funeral services, counseling, and other various support programs. “We are the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment,” Barnard stated. “But we will not be the last.”