Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill abolishing the death penalty Wednesday.
Under Senate Bill 1165 and House Bill 2263, any person with a death sentence for an offense committed before July 1, 2021, will be sentenced to life imprisonment instead, and “no person may be sentenced to death or put to death” under the revised law. According to the Governor’s office, the two people currently on death row, Anthony Juniper and Thomas Porter, will have their sentences changed to life in prison without parole as a result of the law.
Northam celebrated the new law, saying:
The death penalty system is fundamentally flawed—it is inequitable, ineffective, and it has no place in this Commonwealth or this country. Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death. Abolishing this inhumane practice is the moral thing to do. This is a truly historic day for Virginia, and I am deeply grateful to those who have fought tirelessly and for generations to put an end to capital punishment in our Commonwealth.
Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, welcomed the new law and echoed Northam’s opinion that “the death penalty has always been about race.” Both Gastañaga and Northam cited data that a defendant convicted of murder is “more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death if the victim of a crime is White, than if the victim is Black.” Virginia has executed more than 1,300 people in its history. Of the 113 individuals put to death since 1976, 52 were Black.
The new law makes Virginia the twenty-third state and the first Southern state to ban the death penalty completely.