Abolition of the Death Penalty in Virginia

History: Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is a legal penalty in Virginia. In the modern era of capital punishment, Virginia has executed a higher percentage of its death-row prisoners than any other state. This is a result of poor defense representation and the strictest procedural rules in the country. Under these procedural rules, defendants were denied any judicial review of legal claims that their lawyers failed to raise at the right time or in the right manner, even when through no fault of the defendant (i.e. a lawyer missed a filing deadline).

Death sentences in the Virginia significantly declined after Virginia began instructing juries in the late 1990s that defendants sentenced to life imprisonment would never be eligible for parole, and then created regional capital defender offices in 2002-2003 to represent most capital defendants at trial. No death sentences have been imposed by Virginia juries since 2011. The last execution in the Commonwealth was in July 2017, when William Morva was executed via lethal injection for murder.

In the history of Virginia’s death penalty, only one person has been freed from death row. That person was Earl Washington, who was pardoned in 2000 after DNA evidence excluded him as a perpetrator in the rape and murder for which he had been sentenced to death. Washington was intellectually disabled and had been coerced into confessing to the crime. There are currently two on death row in Virginia, both are Black males.

When comparing racial disparities in the 20th century, 377 people have been executed. Of those, 296 were black and 79 white. All 79 of white defendants were convicted of murder. Of the black defendants who were executed, 223 were convicted of murder, 48 of rape, 20 of attempted rape and 5 of robbery.

The death penalty has been controversial in Virginia, as well as across the U.S. It has been a subject of debate and discussion in the General Assembly for years.

This year, in the 2021 General Assembly session, two separate death penalty bills were proposed, one in the Virginia House of Delegates and one in the Senate. The proposed legislation states that any person under a sentence of death imposed for an offense committed prior to July 1, 2021, but who has not been executed by July 1, 2021, shall have his sentence changed to life imprisonment, and such person who was 18 years of age or older at the time of the offense shall not be eligible for (i) parole, (ii) any good conduct allowance or any earned sentence credits.

On February 3, 2021, the Senate of Virginia voted to abolish the Commonwealth’s death penalty. The House of Delegates followed suit on February 5. Due to slight differences in the language of the two bills, one of the houses of the General Assembly must approve the language of a bill passed by the other chamber before the measure can be transmitted to Governor Ralph Northam for his signature. Governor Northam has indicated that he will sign the repeal bill. If that happens, Virginia will become the first state of the former Confederacy to abolish the death penalty.

“After being the first colony to execute someone in 1608, and executing over 1000 of its citizens during that time, Virginia is prepared to abolish this barbaric practice.  Virginia has not had a new death sentence since 2011, and the current death row population of Virginia is just two people. Whether the execution of the Martinsville Seven, or the near execution of Earl Washington, capital punishment’s irrevocable nature has been a blight on the history of our Commonwealth.  The practice has been barbarically implemented, arbitrarily imposed, and disproportionately affected communities of color.  The end of Virginia killing its own citizens and becoming the first southern state to do so will be a point of pride for our Commonwealth moving forward.” ~ Richard Johnson, Capital Defender, Central Virginia

Photo credit: NPR