Virginia Becomes the 23rd State to End the Death Penalty

On Wednesday, March 24th, the Commonwealth of Virginia became the 23rd state in the nation to abolish the death penalty when Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill passed by the legislature in February.

This is a historic and symbolic event. Virginia becomes the first state that was a part of the Confederacy to stop the use of the death penalty.

Speaking on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates in February, Democratic Delegate Jay Jones noted that, “The death penalty is the direct descendant of lynching. It is state-sponsored racism and we have an opportunity to end this today.”

Although generally aligned with supporters of the death penalty, two Republicans joined with Democrats in support of abolition. The bill also had the support of numerous victim’s families.

Northam had campaigned on a promise to end the death penalty in a state that executed a higher percentage of death row inmates than any other state in the modern era. Northam pointed out that the “great majority” of the almost 1,400 individuals executed were African American. Northam also pointed to the case of Earl Washington, Jr., a black man sentenced to death following a wrongful conviction of rape and murder in 1984. Washington spent over 17 years on death row before his execution and came within 9 days of being executed. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since the 1970s, 185 people have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.

In addition to the 23 states that have abolished the death penalty, 3 others have moratoriums in place on the practice, including California, marking the first time since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 that a majority of states are not executing criminal defendants.

While the moratorium serves a similar purpose, California must join the 23 states that have outright abolished capital punishment. It is shameful that a state that claims to be one of the nation’s most progressive in so many ways holds rank with the likes of states in the Deep South that cling fast to the practice. Public opinion supports this, in 2019, a Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans support life without the possibility of parole over the death penalty.

It is time for California to end the deeply racist and barbaric practice and eliminate the death penalty forever.