Virginia, with 2nd-most executions, outlaws death penalty

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, right, listens to operations director George Hinkle as he explains the workings of the holding cells near the death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center prior to the governor signing a bill abolishing the death penalty, in Jarratt, Va., Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

JARRATT, Va. – 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.

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.