Virginia, Shifting Left Fast, Moves to Abolish Death Penalty


Since taking control of the state Legislature in 2019, Virginia Democrats have enacted a run of progressive laws — on gun control, abortion access and the removal of Confederate monuments. Now Virginia is poised to become the first state in the South to abolish the death penalty, a sign of ascendant liberal political power in a state that has executed more people since the 1970s than any other except Texas.

The action follows a spate of federal executions in the last months of the Trump administration that thrust capital punishment back into the national spotlight.

The Virginia State Senate on Wednesday passed a ban on executions along a party-line vote, and a similar measure is moving forward in the House of Delegates, which could vote on final passage on Friday. Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, thanks to a blue wave in November 2019 that was a rebuke to former President Donald J. Trump.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who championed other progressive laws, said it was past time for the state to end capital punishment.

“It’s important that we shut down the machinery of death here in Virginia,” Mr. Northam said in an interview on Thursday. He cited a case in which the state came within days of executing a man in 1985 who was later cleared by DNA evidence, as well as the racial inequity in the percentage of Black people who have been put to death.

In his State of the Commonwealth address last month, Mr. Northam called for abolition of the death penalty, saying a person was three times more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim was white than Black.

Seventeen of the 18 Republicans in the Senate opposed the ban, arguing that some crimes are so heinous that execution is justified as punishment.

“These are savage crimes,” Senator Mark Obenshain, a Republican, said after describing the case of a man executed in 2017 for killing a couple and their two young daughters in a home invasion in Richmond.

Acknowledging that racial inequities and false convictions took place in the past, Republicans said that DNA evidence and the rarity of capital cases — there are just two inmates on death row currently — meant it was being judiciously applied today.

“I do not believe that this bill is an appropriate response to misapplications of capital punishment of decades and centuries past,” Mr. Obenshain said.

Since the United States Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Only Texas, with 576 executions, has surpassed it. But the pace in Virginia has slowed in recent years. There have been no state executions since 2017 and no capital convictions since 2011 in the state.

Democratic officials have become increasingly outspoken about abolishing capital punishment, including Mr. Northam, who opposed the death penalty in a debate in 2017 while running for governor, shortly after Gov. Terry McAuliffe, also a Democrat, declined to halt the execution of a mentally ill man.

“It symbolizes the transformative change in Virginia’s political culture over 30 years,” Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst in the state, said Thursday.

When Tim Kaine ran for governor in 2005, he said he personally opposed capital punishment but would carry it out as chief executive. But such a political straddle is no longer needed in a state that has ceased to be closely divided between the parties.

Virginia has moved decisively from being a battleground in presidential years to a blue state, and President Biden won it by 10 percentage points. Mr. Trump’s four years in office seriously damaged the G.O.P. brand in the state’s most populous regions, and few see a political cost to opposing the death penalty in elections this year for governor, attorney general and legislative seats.

“In terms of where the Democrats win elections in Virginia right now, I’m not sure there’s a downside to it,” Mr. Holsworth said.

The Trump administration’s spree of executions seems to have given the issue some urgency in Virginia. After a 17-year hiatus in which the Justice Department did not carry out any federal executions, lethal injections resumed in mid-2020, and 13 people were put to death. They included a Virginia man executed in Indiana five days before the inauguration of Mr. Biden, who has promised to abolish the federal death penalty.

“I heard more from people saying it’s time to end the death penalty during those executions than I have before,” said Jennifer McClellan, a Democratic candidate for Virginia governor in 2021 and a sponsor of the bill that passed the State Senate. “The bill was filed last year, but the rash of executions just put the issue front and center for some people who hadn’t thought about it before.”

Ms. McClellan, the vice chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the push was part of Mr. Northam’s drive to support issues of racial equity for Black Virginians, an agenda he committed to in early 2019 after surviving a blackface scandal that nearly forced his resignation.

“This is his final session, this is the final chance to secure a legacy,” she said of the governor, who cannot succeed himself under Virginia law.

To move the bill through the Legislature, Mr. Northam corralled a couple of Democratic senators who had previously supported capital punishment.

One was Richard L. Saslaw, the Democratic majority leader. He supported a 2016 bill to force condemned inmates to die by electric chair, in response to a shortage of lethal-injection drugs.

On Wednesday, Mr. Saslaw voted with his party to outlaw capital punishment.

“He’s changed his position,” Mr. Northam said. “I think that took bravery for him to do that.”

If the governor signs a bill, as expected, Virginia would be the 23rd state to end the death penalty.



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