With Northam’s signature, Virginia will become first Southern state to abolish the death penalty

Virginia

FILE – This Oct. 9, 2014, file photo shows the gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. Oklahoma is planning to resume executing death-row inmates, five years after lethal injections were put on hold following a series of death-chamber mishaps, state officials announced Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia is on the verge of becoming the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty after lawmakers gave final approval Monday to a bill that would repeal capital punishment, sending the legislation to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

The Virginia Senate passed a House bill that removes executions from the list of punishments in Virginia Code and makes life in prison without the possibility of parole the maximum sentence the commonwealth can implement.

The Senate voted 22-16 on Monday, with state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) joining Democrats, to approve the measure. The House approved the state Senate’s own version of the bill, 57-43, not long after senators voted.

Northam, who endorsed the effort before the 2021 General Assembly session, seems poised to sign the legislation as he released a joint statement with the state’s Democratic leadership, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax), moments after the state Senate approved the House’s bill.

“It is vital that our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably. We all know the death penalty doesn’t do that,” they said. “It is inequitable, ineffective, and inhumane.”

“Thanks to the vote of lawmakers in both chambers, Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended use of the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all,” the statement continued.

The legislation would commute the death sentences of the two offenders currently on death row in Virginia to life without the possibility of parole. It redefines capital murder as aggravated murder and requires a judge to sentence every person convicted moving forward to life in prison.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court let states resume the death penalty in 1976, Virginia has conducted the second most executions at 113, behind only Texas. Despite this, the last execution in Virginia was in 2017. 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 25 states still have the death penalty, 22 don’t and three have moratoriums imposed by their governors.

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