The state of Virginia might still be struggling to get the go-ahead to remove the legacy of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from its Monument Avenue, but it is taking what many will see as a much deeper dive into progressivism by becoming the first southern state to abolish the death penalty. Gov. Ralph Northam is set to sign the historic legislation Wednesday afternoon.
The Associated Press reports that Virginia’s Senate and House of Delegates both approved a bill to end capital punishment last month, making it the 23rd state in the U.S. to do so. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly voted 22-16 in favor of the legislation.
This is huge for a state that holds America’s record for most executions having put nearly 1,400 prisoners to death since the state was a colony, and has executed 113 inmates since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to AP. In fact, the only other state that has executed more people than Virginia since 1976 is Texas.
According to 6 News Richmond, the legislation was written by Delegate Mike Mullin (D-Newport News). Mullin called the passing of the bill a sign that the “Virginia General Assembly has finally caught up with Virginians.”
“Virginia juries are given an opportunity to put somebody to death at least once a month here in Virginia,” Mullin said during a news conference, 6 News reports. “And they declined to do so for 11 years. It’s not for lack of opportunity. Instead, Virginia juries don’t want to issue the death penalty, even when they’ve been given the opportunity.”
From 6 News:
Once Governor Ralph Northam signs the bill at 2 p.m. at Greensville Correctional Center, Virginia’s 15 capital punishment crimes will now become aggravated murder, punishable by a life sentence.
Opponents of the legislation raised concerns about justice for victims and their family members. But Mullin says any innocent life taken is one too many.
“What do you say to the last innocent person who’s been executed?” asked Mullins. “What do you say to their family, if after we put them to death, we find out that they were innocent? Not saying that there aren’t bad people in prison, and there aren’t bad people out there. But if we put someone to death and then find out later that they’re innocent, we can’t unmake that.”
In 1984, Earl Washington, a Black man with an I.Q. of 69, was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder and was sentenced to die. After spending nearly 17 years in prison waiting to be executed, he was exonerated in 2000 just over a week before he was scheduled to be put to death.
This brings us to another point raised by Mullins and one that has been raised by anti-racism and anti-death penalty advocates for some time now: Black people have been overrepresented in death sentences across the country.
“We’ve executed almost 1,400 people, and the first time that a white man was executed for killing a black man was in 1997,” Mullin said. “Out of the 1,400 that’s only happened four times. And the reason is that, statistically, the most likely indicator that you’re going to be put to the death penalty is if it is a black defendant and a white victim. That’s racist. We need to put an end to it.”
A 2019 report from Death Penalty Information Center found that in 2019, 52 percent of the death row inmates were Black and that “since executions resumed in 1977, 295 African-Americans defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, while only 21 white defendants have been executed for the murder of an African-American victim.”