Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, left, looks over the electric chair in the death chamber of the Greensville Correctional Center with Superintendent George Hinkle (center) and Corrections Director Harold Clarke (right) before proposing a bill Abolition Act signs punishment in Jarratt, Va., Wednesday, March 24, 2021. Steve Helber / AP Hide caption
Steve Helber / AP
Steve Helber / AP
On Wednesday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill to abolish the death penalty in the state after the democratically controlled legislature passed the measure late last month.
“It is the moral thing to end the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said the governor.
Northam, a Democrat, held the signing of the Ceremonies Act at the Greensville Correctional Center just outside Garrett, Virginia, where the state houses its execution chamber.
Virginia is the first state in the Confederation to stop punishing. The Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state since the first Jamestown execution in 1608.
Opponents of the death penalty cite the high cost, the possibility of executing the innocent and the disproportionate racist effects. Black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death, especially if the victims are white.
“The death penalty is the direct descendant of lynching. It is government sponsored racism and we have an opportunity today to end it,” said Democratic Del. Jay Jones on the floor of the house last month.
Virginia has gone through several racial settlements in the past few years. Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says the 2019 controversy with Governor Northam and an old racist yearbook photo may have brought the state closer to that point. “I think the governor’s blackface scandal has undoubtedly led him to be far more sensitive about issues of racial justice.”
And then came the police who killed George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis last year.
“The protests against Black Lives Matter have accelerated the move towards reform of the criminal justice system in general and the abolition of the death penalty in particular,” says Stone.
Two Republicans voted with Democrats for the abolition, but the party was largely united in the opposition, as were law enforcement groups who want to keep the sentence on people who murder police officers.
Many family members of the victim have spoken out against the death penalty, saying that it makes healing more difficult.
Rachel Sutphin is a vocal opponent of the death penalty and refused to have her father’s killer executed in 2017. William Morva, the last to be executed in Virginia, fatally shot her father, Eric Sutphin, a police officer in 2006. She partially refused to execute Morva because he was diagnosed with severe mental illness.
“There are a lot of us, and we kept saying things. We don’t want that,” says Sutphin. “However, we want to honor those who disagree with us. We do not speak against them, but against this topic, which we see as wrong in our society.”
Thanking lawmakers for bringing the bill to his desk, Governor Northam said, “Virginia will join 22 other states that have stopped using the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and fair to everyone.” is fair. “