JARRATT, Va. (AP/WAVY) — The governor signed legislation Wednesday making Virginia the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, a dramatic shift for the commonwealth, which had the second-highest number of executions in the U.S.
The bills were the culmination of a yearslong battle by Democrats who argued the death penalty has been applied disproportionately to people of color, the mentally ill and the poor. Republicans argued that the death penalty should remain a sentencing option for especially heinous crimes and to bring justice to victims and their families.
Virginia’s new Democratic majority, in full control of the General Assembly for a second year, won the debate last month when both the Senate and House of Delegates passed the measures banning capital punishment.
Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed the House and Senate bills in a ceremony under a tent Wednesday after touring the execution chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center, where 102 people have been put to death since executions were moved there from the Virginia State Penitentiary in the early 1990s.
“There is no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the South or in this nation,” Northam said shortly before signing the legislation.
Northam said the death penalty has been disproportionately applied to Black people and is the product of a flawed judicial system that doesn’t always get it right. Since 1973, more than 170 people around the country have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence was uncovered, he said.
Watch the full ceremony below
Northam recounted the story of Earl Washington Jr., a Black man who was sentenced to death after being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in Virginia in 1984. Washington spent more than 17 years in prison before he was exonerated. He came within nine days of being executed.
“We can’t give out the ultimate punishment without being 100% sure that we’re right, and we can’t sentence people to that ultimate punishment knowing that the system doesn’t work the same for everyone,” Northam said.
Virginia has executed nearly 1,400 people since its days as a colony. In modern times, the state is second only to Texas in the number of executions it has carried out, with 113 since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.
Only two men remain on Virginia’s death row: Anthony Juniper, who was sentenced to death in the 2004 slayings of his ex-girlfriend, two of her children, and her brother; and Thomas Porter, who was sentenced to die for the 2005 killing of a Norfolk police officer. Their sentences will now be converted to life in prison without parole.
In addition to the 23 states that have now abolished the death penalty, three others have moratoriums in place that were imposed by their governors.
Death penalty opponents say passing the legislation in Virginia could mark the beginning of the end for capital punishment in the South, where most executions currently take place.
“Virginia’s death penalty has deep roots in slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow segregation,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “The symbolic value of dismantling this tool that has been used historically as a mechanism for racial oppression by a legislature sitting in the former capital of the Confederacy can’t be overstated.”
During Northam’s tour of the death chamber, he was shown the wooden chair where death row inmates were electrocuted and a metal gurney where they were given lethal injections. He also saw the holding cells where they spent the final days of their lives and had their last meals.
“It is a powerful thing to stand in the room where people have been put to death,” Northam told the crowd of lawmakers and death penalty opponents who attended the bill-signing ceremony.
“I know that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life, and it reinforced (to) me that signing this new law is the right thing to do. It is the moral thing to do — to end the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he said.
10 On Your Side spoke with Del. Mike Mullin, who was the patron for House Bill 2263, ahead of Wednesday’s signing.
Mullin, who is a criminal prosecutor, says abolishing the death penalty is something he’s wanted to accomplish for a while.
“I’ve been thinking about this moment since I was a 9-year-old altar server hearing a homily about how wrong the death penalty is and that stuck with me since I was as a little kid,” he said. “Today’s a big day. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a long time and I had full faith the entire time we were going to get this done this year.”
Mullin, who sponsored this bill for the first time, says other bills have tried to come through the General Assembly over the years but believes Northam’s endorsement, as well as Democratic control in the legislature, made it possible. He also received a letter from the first representative who carried the bill in 1973.
“In four centuries, Virginia has executed almost 1,400 people. The first person executed was done in 1607 right here in Jamestown Island. This is an institution that has flourished here in Virginia for way too long and I’m glad that as of this afternoon, it won’t exist any longer,” he said.
However, another local delegate has been an outspoken critic of getting rid of the death penalty.
Republican Del. Jason Miyares, who represents the 82nd District, says the death penalty is a tool for prosecutors to use for the rarest and cruelest crimes as a deterrent to other crimes.
“It’s ultimately going to make Virginians less safe. We know life without the possibility of parole in Virginia doesn’t mean that anymore,” he said.
Mirayes, who is also a former prosecutor, points to the cases of Vincent Martin and Gregory Joyner, who were controversially released by the parole board.
“I know ultimately where this is [where it] heads because other states — Massachusetts, New Hampshire — that have abolished have abolished life without the possibility of parole. We know the parole board has let people out,” he said. “We know other states have down keep moving forward. This is an example of criminal first, victim last mentality by the governor and the General Assembly,” he said.
The delegate says that those against the death penalty are opposed to using the death penalty even for those who have confessed to crimes.
However, Mullin believes the system is too flawed, and putting even one innocent person at risk is enough to abolish capital punishment.
“What do you say to the family of the last innocent person that we executed? That we so wanted vengeance on other people we were really willing to execute your innocent brother? Son? Spouse?” he said.
After Northam signed the bill, Virginia and national leaders and lawmakers released statements:
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center
“Virginia’s death penalty has deep roots in slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow segregation. The symbolic value of dismantling this tool that has been used historically as a mechanism for racial oppression by a legislature sitting in the former capital of the Confederacy can’t be overstated.”
Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus
“This is a historic moment for criminal justice reform in Virginia as we finally end a barbaric system that disproportionately punished Black and Brown people. Ending capital punishment is a critical step on the long path to build a justice system that is truly just.”VLBC Vice Chair Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), co-patron of the bill (SB 1165 – Surovell)
“Being a national leader in the number of executions is not a title to be proud of.” Prior to the bill’s passage by the Virginia General Assembly, Leader Herring quoted the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall stating that “[i]t is evident…that the burden of capital punishment falls upon the poor…and the underprivileged members of society.” Leader Herring added that “[i]f we understand the facts of how the penalty is actually applied, we would do away with the death penalty.”House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), a chief co-patron of the bill (HB 2263 – Mullin)
“This has been a long time coming, but we finally got there. For as long as capital punishment existed in our Commonwealth it was disproportionately used against Black and Brown Virginians and against low-income communities. Now we take another step forward towards a fairer and more equitable justice system. We have gotten so much accomplished in this session to break down the barriers that have existed for so long here in Virginia and across the United States. And I look forward to seeing what more we can accomplish in the sessions ahead.”Senate President Pro Tempore L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth)
Del. Nancy Guy (D-83 Virginia Beach/Norfolk)
“The death penalty was a costly, ineffective crime deterrent, disproportionately carried out against Black and brown Virginians. As a member of the Courts of Justice Committee and the Criminal Subcommittee, it was a privilege to vote to eliminate the death penalty six times as it made its way to through the legislative process. I am proud of Virginia for moving out of the shadow of its 400-year history and eliminating this barbaric practice, once and for all.”
Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk)
“This is a historic day in Virginia and a big step forward on the path to a more fair justice system. I have always believed deeply in my soul that the death penalty is abhorrent. I am heartened today that Virginians have come together – citizens, legislators, and our Governor – in the name of justice, civil rights, and decency to do the right thing and abolish it,”
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D-Va.)
“For too long Virginia had the shameful distinction as one of the states that most frequently imposed the death penalty. Now we are showing a better, more just way forward as the first state in the south to do away with it. Ending this practice is just one step in our ongoing, crucial work to reform the Commonwealth’s criminal justice system to make it more fair, equal and just for all Virginians.”