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Virginia Outlaws Death Penalty

Governor's Office Livestream

Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation Wednesday ending the death penalty in Virginia.

That makes the Commonwealth the first southern state to end capital punishment.

The death chamber has gone dark, and the days of Virginia executing people has come to a close. Governor Ralph Northam commemorated the moment by traveling to the Greensville Correctional Center to take a tour of the room where inmates were executed.

Then he walked outside and signed legislation abolishing capital punishment in Virginia.


"When I was young I believed in an eye for an eye," Northam said. "But as I matured, my mind changed. And when I ran for office I committed to work on ending the death penalty in Virginia."


That journey involved years of advocacy with groups slowly winning over lawmakers to the cause. Ultimately that effort dovetailed with the protests against police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.


Senator Scott Surovell says skeptics were won over by concerns about potentially executing the innocent. "That is the one argument that nobody ever countered on the floor," Surovell remembered. "We had this argument for two hours in the Senate, and not a single person could say how do you justify killing one innocent person for every nine guilty people that you execute. Nobody can justify that."


The legislation removes the phrase "capital murder" from the code, replacing it with "aggravated murder."


Only Texas has executed more people since the U. S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the Associated Press.  Virginia has executed some 1,300 to 1,400 people dating back to its colonial days.


This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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