RICHMOND, Va. -- Not all Virginia lawmakers supported the Commonwealth's decision to abolish the death penalty.
The governor signed legislation Wednesday making Virginia the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, a dramatic shift for the commonwealth, which had the second-highest number of executions in the U.S. The bills were the culmination of a years-long battle by Democrats who argued the death penalty has been applied disproportionately to people of color, the mentally ill, and the poor.
Republicans argued that the death penalty should remain a sentencing option for especially heinous crimes and to bring justice to victims and their families.
Virginia’s new Democratic majority, in full control of the General Assembly for a second year, won the debate last month when both the Senate and House of Delegates passed the measures banning capital punishment.
Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed the House and Senate bills in a ceremony under a tent Wednesday after touring the execution chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center, where 102 people have been put to death since executions were moved there from the Virginia State Penitentiary in the early 1990s.
“I think it’s in some ways a sad day for the victims and the victim’s families," Del. Jason Miyares (R - Virginia Beach) said. "I think this is going into kind of a criminal first, victim last mindset in criminal justice that I think is going to make Virginia less safe and secure.”
Virginia has executed five prisoners in the past decade. Miyares said the reason executions have become rare in Virginia is that the punishment it was reserved for the most heinous, cruel crimes so that the victim's families could feel a sense of justice.
“There’s one word to describe what happened to these victims: it’s just cruelty. It’s abject cruelty, and there’s a certain level of depravity," he said about the crimes in which people were sentenced to die.
“There is no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the South or in this nation,” Gov. Northam said before signing the legislation.
Northam said the death penalty has been disproportionately applied to Black people and is the product of a flawed judicial system that doesn’t always get it right. Since 1973, more than 170 people around the country have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence was uncovered, he said.
Northam recounted the story of Earl Washington Jr., a Black man who was sentenced to death after being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in Virginia in 1984. Washington spent more than 17 years in prison before he was exonerated. He came within nine days of being executed.
“We can’t give out the ultimate punishment without being 100% sure that we’re right, and we can’t sentence people to that ultimate punishment knowing that the system doesn’t work the same for everyone,” Northam said.
Virginia has executed nearly 1,400 people since its days as a colony. In modern times, the state is second only to Texas in the number of executions it has carried out, with 113 since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.
Only two men remain on Virginia’s death row: Anthony Juniper, who was sentenced to death in the 2004 slayings of his ex-girlfriend, two of her children, and her brother; and Thomas Porter, who was sentenced to die for the 2005 killing of a Norfolk police officer. Their sentences will now be converted to life in prison without parole.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.