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Northam Signs Death Penalty Abolition Into Law

bill signing
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, seated center, displays a bill abolishing the death penalty after signing it as he is surrounded by legislators and activists at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Today, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill that ends the death penalty in Virginia. The legislation will go into effect this July.

Northam held a ceremonial bill signing at Greensville Correctional Center just outside of Jarratt, Va., where the state houses its execution chamber. 

"Like many people, when I was young I believed in an eye for an eye,” Northam said. "As I have learned more about how the death penalty is applied in this country, I can say the death penalty is fundamentally flawed."

Virginia, which housed the former capital of the confederacy, is the first state in the old confederacy to stop using the punishment. The commonwealth has executed more people than any other state since the first execution took place at Jamestown in 1608, and critics say the practice has been disproportionately applied to Black Virginians. 

According to the governor, about 79% of those executed by the state in the 20th Century were Black. Rev. LaKeisha Cook, with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said abolition will move the commonwealth towards equity.

“Today we start a new chapter, embracing the possibility of a new, evidence-based approach to public safety,” Cook said. “One that values the dignity of all human beings and is focused on transforming the justice system into one that is rooted in fairness, accountability and redemption.”   

Like many other states, Virginia also has a history of exonerating people who have been falsely convicted of capital murder. 

Northam cited the case of Earl Washington, an intellectually disabled man, who was sentenced to death for the 1982 rape and murder of a Culpeper, Va. woman. He was pardoned in 2000 after serving more than 17 years in prison when DNA evidence confirmed his innocence.

“The lesson is not that the system worked. The lesson is that the system did not work,” Northam said.

Opponents of the death penalty cite the high cost, the possibility of executing the innocent and the disproportionate racial impact. Black defendants are more likely to face death sentences, especially when victims are white. 

“Is it fair for the state to apply this ultimate final punishment?” Northam posed. “Fair means that it is applied equally to everyone. And fair means that we get it right.".

There are two men currently on Virginia’s death row at Sussex State Prison. Both men, who are Black and in their 40s and early 50s, will have their sentences commuted to life in prison. 

One of those men, Thomas Porter, was convicted of murdering Norfolk police officer Stanley Reaves in 2005. Porter addressed advocates in a note last month when he heard the news that his sentence would be commuted. 

“Thank you for being so resilient in this process, never yielding an inch and for saving my life this very day,” Porter said. 

Two Republicans voted with Democrats in favor of abolition, but the party has been largely unified in opposition, along with law enforcement groups who want to keep the penalty for people who murder police officers. 

Many victim’s families have spoken out against the death penalty, saying it makes healing more difficult. 

The last person executed in Virginia was William Morva, who was diagnosed with a serious mental illness after he killed Sheriff's Deputy Corporal Eric Sutphin and hospital security guard Derrick McFarland in 2006. Sutphin’s daughter Rachel Sutphin has been outspoken about her objection to the death penalty. 

A racial reckoning largely brought Virginia to this moment. In 2019, an old yearbook photo of Northam wearing blackface ignited controversy, followed by the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked nationwide protests. Advocates say the Black Lives Matter protests accelerated the move toward criminal justice reform and death penalty abolition.

*Connor Scribner contributed to this reporting.