Death Penalty

Virginia Poised To Become 23rd State To End Death Penalty

The state that has executed the most prisoners may soon end the practice entirely.


Virginia will be the latest state to end executions if a bill lawmakers passed last week is signed into law.

Virginia has executed 114 prisoners since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center; across its lengthy history, it has executed more prisoners than any other state. (The first execution in what would become the United States was in the Jamestown colony in Virginia in 1608.) Like many other states, it has used the punishment less often in recent years; it hasn't executed anybody since 2017. Only two people are currently on death row in Virginia.

The bill just passed eliminates the death penalty as a form of punishment. The two people currently on death row will have their sentences converted to life imprisonment. There's been a bit of legislative friction over whether those two people should ever be eligible for parole: The House version of the bill would not allow it, while the Senate bill opens the possibility. So that will have to be hammered out in conferences.

Whichever version of the bill ends up on Gov. Ralph Northram's desk, he's likely to sign it. The Democratic governor has publicly called for the end of the death penalty, telling The New York Times that he wants to "shut down the machinery of death here in Virginia."

All the Democrats in both houses voted to end the use of executions. Two Republicans in the House joined the Democrats, but none in the Senate supported it. The Washington Post reports that some Republican senators have said they'd be more open to the bill if they were certain that people convicted of what would have been capital crimes would be guaranteed life sentences and couldn't ever be paroled. So depending on how the compromise is worded, it could pick up more Republican support.

The recent plunge in states' use of the death penalty contrasts with the return of federal executions in the final months of Donald Trump's presidency. The Department of Justice under Trump executed 13 people, three in the final week of Trump's term. The federal government executed more people in 2020 than all states combined.

President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party's platform both oppose the use of the death penalty. There is pressure now on Biden to commute the sentences of the remaining 59 people on federal death row to prevent their executions. On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that the president is considering whether to order the Department of Justice to stop scheduling further executions.

That's fine as a short-term stopgap, but if Biden truly opposes the death penalty, he needs to commute those sentences. Otherwise he'll be repeating a mistake made by President Barack Obama: Obama told the Justice Department not to schedule any executions, but he left those prisoners on death row for the next administration to execute.