By Kate Bryan
Virginia is the 23rd state to abolish capital punishment.
In response to the passage of SB 1165 and HB 2263, Governor Ralph Northam, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn stated, “Thanks to the vote of lawmakers in both chambers, Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended use of the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all.”
The new law, which will take effect in July, sparked debate among legislators largely along party lines.
Delegate Jason Miyares (R), an opponent of the repeal, voiced concern that “victims have been completely left out in this debate over the death penalty.” Supporters, however, maintain that capital punishment is, as Delegate Mike Mullin (D) argued, “flawed with wrongful convictions, inadequate representation, geographic disparity and racial bias.”
Two bills to repeal the death penalty were introduced during the 2020 legislative session, but the Senate voted to delay consideration of abolishing capital punishment until this year.
In his State of the Commonwealth Address last January, Northam recounted Virginia’s long history of capital punishment and called for the law to change: “Virginia has executed more people than any other state— more than 1,300 people… In the U.S., 22 states have said, no longer will the state take a life, even when someone has killed another.
"There are a lot of reasons. It doesn’t work as a deterrent. It’s expensive. And the drug companies refuse to supply the lethal chemicals. There’s another important reason: What if the system gets it wrong? If you think it can’t happen, you’re wrong. It can happen, and it has happened, here in Virginia.”
Two inmates on Virginia's death row will have their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole when the new law takes effect.
Kate Bryan is an intern in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.