Virginia first US southern state set to abolish death penalty

Virginia legislature passes measure, paving way for signature of Governor Northam, who already voiced support.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is set to sign a bill abolishing the death penalty in his state [File: Steve Helber/AP Photo]

The Virginia House of Delegates voted on Friday to abolish the death penalty, becoming the first southern US state to do so.

“Virginia’s achievement today does much more than sound, once again, the death penalty’s demise. The Commonwealth is about to become the first former Confederate state to repeal the death penalty, showing the nation what must be done to reckon with our justice system’s deep-rooted racism”, Shari Silberstein, executive director of criminal reform nonprofit Equal Justice USA, said in a statement sent to Al Jazeera.

The vote comes after the Virginia Senate passed similar legislation earlier this week. Governor Ralph Northam is expected to sign the bill into law.

Northam said at the annual State of the Commonwealth address he will support a bill to abolish the death penalty, citing racial bias in the criminal justice system as one of his motivations.

Virginia is among 25 states that still use capital punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Governors have imposed death penalty moratoriums in three states, and 22 have abolished capital punishment, the DPIC said.

Virginia has conducted 1,390 executions since 1608, the most in the United States and 68 more than Texas, the state with the second most executions. Virginia last carried out an execution in 2017.

Two men remain on Virginia’s death row, including Thomas Porter, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 2005.

Public support for capital punishment has declined in the United States. According to Gallup, support has dropped from 80 percent in the 1990 to 55 percent in 2020.

Abolishing the death penalty is also being weighed at the national level.

Former President Donald Trump, a Republican, resumed the execution of prisoners on federal death row last summer after a 17-year hiatus, killing 13 people convicted of murder.

That followed six decades that saw only three federal executions. Last year was the first time the US government executed more people than all 50 state governments combined.

Democrat Joe Biden took office last month as the first US president to commit to seeking to abolish the federal death penalty.  Lawmakers in Congress are asking him to support bills that would repeal the death penalty.

Most countries have abolished capital punishment, and the United Nations has long called for a moratorium on executions and urged its abolition worldwide.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies