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Virginia first southern US state to ban death penalty

March 25, 2021

Virginia has banned capital punishment, joining 22 other US states. Governor Ralph Northam highlighted racial bias prevalent in the use of the death penalty.

USA Todesstrafe Virginia
Governor Ralph Northam signed the bill abolishing the death penalty in Virginia.Image: Steve Helber/AP Photo/picture alliance

Virginia became the first southern US state to abolish the death penalty after Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation on Wednesday.

Virginia has carried out nearly 1,400 executions — more than any other US state — since its founding as a British colony in 1608.

The state also conducted the second-most executions after Texas since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

"Signing this new law is the right thing to do," Northam said at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, which houses the state's execution chamber.

"It is the moral thing to do to end the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia," he said. "Virginia's history — we have much to be proud of — but not the history of capital punishment."

Racial bias in death penalty

Northam also described the use of the death penalty in his state as "fundamentally flawed" and racially biased.

"Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death," he said.

"We know that the system doesn't always get it right," he said. "We can't give out the ultimate punishment without being 100 percent sure that we're right."

USA Todesstrafe Virginia
Ralph Northam, left, visited the death chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center in in Jarratt, Virginia.Image: Steve Helber/AP Photo/picture alliance

Black people accounted for 296 of the 377 inmates executed by the state for murder in the 20th century, Northam said.

He also cited studies that found a defendant was three times more like to be sentenced to death if the victim of the crime was white than if they were Black.

'Incompatible with human dignity'

The European Union welcomed the step to abolish capital punishment, saying it was the latest development in a growing trend.

"The death penalty is incompatible with human dignity and the right to life, constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment, and does not have any proven deterrent effect," the bloc said in a statement.

Virginia last executed a prisoner in 2017. Two men remain on the state's death row and will have their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole.

Virginia joined 22 other states that have outlawed the death penalty, while three others — California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania — have a moratorium on its use.

In contrast, former President Donald Trump's administration resumed federal executions during his term and put 13 federal inmates to death between July 2020 and his departure from the White House in January. He also has amended the rules on federal executions, allowing death by firing squads or poison gas.

His successor Joe Biden has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty.

adi/rc (AFP, Reuters)