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Virginia about to become first Southern state to ban death penalty

Amid growing debate over the use of the death penalty in the United States, Virginia has decided to abolish its use, joining 22 other states that never have or no longer execute convicted felons.

This month, the Democrat-controlled state Senate and state House of Delegates voted to eliminate all references to a death penalty and “capital” offenses from the state’s criminal code. 

image of an electric chair scale model on a dark backgorund

Slight differences in the bills must still be reconciled by the General Assembly and will not go into effect until the final bill is signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, who has indicated he will do so. 

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Still at issue is whether former death row inmates, whose sentences would be converted to life in prison, would be eligible for parole.

The death penalty debate in Virginia focused on the possible wrongful conviction and execution of innocent people, the cost of litigating death penalty appeals and the disproportionate impact of executions on people of color. 

The first execution in Virginia occurred in 1608 and the most recent execution was held in 2017 when William Charles Morva was executed for killing a deputy and a security guard, despite pleas for clemency based on his mental illness.

According to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, “Virginia has executed a higher percentage of its death-row prisoners than any other state.” 

Since just 1982, more than 100 people have been executed in Virginia. Currently, there are two Black men on the state’s death row.

If the law is finalized, Virginia would be the first southern state to ban the death penalty. previously reported on the national debate over use of the death penalty. To learn more about the status of this ultimate punishment in the United States, read our take on “The death penalty: Emotion, numbers and the law collide.”