Ending where it started: Virginia abolishes the death penalty after 1,300 executions

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Source: MEGA

Apr. 16 2021, Updated 10:13 a.m. ET

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Since its inception in the union, the state of Virginia executed more than 1,300 men and women. But, there will be no more. 

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The state recently abolished the death penalty. The new law successfully passed by its Democrat-controlled legislature in February and signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam a month later.  

Northam, who spoke to lawmakers and prison officials outside the Greensville Correctional Center that housed death row inmates, said, “Signing this new law is the right thing to do. It is the moral thing to do,” according to media reports

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The former confederate colony was the birthplace of slavery in the United States, with its first execution of Captain George Kendall in 1608 for treason after being accused of spying for Spain. Since then, executions had become an effective tool of racial oppression and legal means for the public lynching of African-Americans in the state. 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Virginia had executed 113 inmates to date, the most execution behind Texas. Until the Civil War, the law demarcated a baseline rationale for the executions based on race. White men could only be executed for first-degree murder, whereas black men could be executed for non-homicidal crimes.

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In the past ten years, 12 states, in addition to 22 states that had already abolished the death penalty, did not sentence anyone to death, indicating a decline and intolerance of capital punishment employed, particularly in the south. 

Northam admitted to lawmakers, “We know that the Commonwealth’s use of capital punishment has been inequitable. We can’t sentence people to that ultimate punishment knowing the system does not work the same for everyone.” Just in the twentieth century alone, 296 out of 377 people who were executed were blacks, reported Time.

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With the new law, Virginia made history and had become the first former Confederate state to abolish the death penalty. Anthony Juniper and Thomas Porter were the only two people who remained on death row before Northam signed the bill. 

According to The Appeal, State Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), a one-time professed pro-death row advocate, said, “There’s only two people on death row; juries are just not handing out the sentences anymore. That option’s not there right now.” 

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Saslaw, who had once protected a company that produced the lethal injection drug, became one of the senators who now voted to abolish the death penalty.

In recent months, the issue of racial inequality had caused more legislators to take another look at their political, moral compass amid the ongoing Derek Chauvin trial for the death of George Floyd.  An event that had captured the nation’s attention in May 2020 when a video went viral showed a white police officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed black man who died in custody. 

In conjunction with members of the Virginia National Assembly, 17 families of murdered victims wrote an open letter to the General Assembly and requested for the death penalty to be abolished. Virginia currently has a trifecta Democratic party control of both the legislative houses and its executive branch, which made it possible for the progressive law to be passed after years of campaign by advocates seeking to end the death penalty. 

Now, all death sentences in the state will be commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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