Virginia’s history as the nation’s top executioner comes to an end with a stroke of Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s pen.
JARRATT, Va. (CN) — Ending Virginia’s history as the leading executioner in the country, Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill Wednesday banning the use of the death penalty in the state.
“Make no mistake, if you commit serious crimes, you will be punished,” Northam said before signing the bill. “Justice and punishment are not always the same thing. That is too clearly evident in 400 years of the death penalty in Virginia.”
Virginia is ranked second for executions since 1976, when capital punishment was reinstated following a short reprieve from the U.S. Supreme Court, which found it was disproportionately used against Black citizens. Going back to the state’s founding in 1788, records show it leads the nation in executions with over 1,300 people killed by the state.
Northam’s signing event was all the more impactful as he put his signature on the bill on the grounds of Greensville Correctional Center, a rural state jail in Jarratt that houses the state’s death chamber. The Democratic governor said he’d just finished a tour of the facility, including the hallowed chamber which saw so many lives ended.
“I don’t know how else to describe it other than to say it’s a powerful thing to stand in the room where people have been put to death,” he said. “I know that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. It reinforced me to know singing this bill is the right thing to do, the moral thing to do.”
The governor was joined by Virginia Delegate Mike Mullin, D-Norfolk, and state Senator Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who both worked on the final version of the bill. Surovell said the rollback of the death penalty allows Virginia to “emerge from the dark ages of criminal justice.”
“I am looking forward to building on this legislation to lead Virginia and the nation into the future where people, especially people of color, can trust law enforcement and justice systems to treat them equitably instead of being stacked against them,” he said in a statement before the signing ceremony.
With Wednesday’s bill signing, Virginia joins 22 other states in abolishing capital punishment. Two men remain on death row in Virginia. Their sentences will be commuted and turned into life without the possibility of parole.
Shari Silberstein, executive director of the New York-based social justice advocacy group Equal Justice USA, helped push the legislature and hailed the effort when it passed both of the state’s lawmaking chambers in February. She noted the state’s history as the capital of the Confederacy and the legacy the death penalty played in sustaining deep-rooted racism in the state’s justice system.
“Over the past year, millions of Americans witnessed the murders of Black people by police, violent suppression of protests, and finally a spree of vicious executions by the last presidential administration,” she wrote in a statement. “Virginia is taking action on our collective horror and will become an example for a nation that needs to reconcile.”
Abolishing the death penalty was supported by a majority of Virginians, 56%, according to recent polling from the Wason Center. Yet the state’s Republican party, reeling from losing control of the House of Delegates two years ago, hopes to exploit the rollback in an effort to take back the chamber this fall, when every statewide office goes before voters.
“Today Governor Northam removed a necessary deterrent from our justice system,” said leading GOP gubernatorial candidate and former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, in a statement ahead of Wednesday’s signing. He said capital punishment should be in place for the “most heinous of crimes,” and abolishing it amounts to a “slap in the face to victims.”
Among the two remaining death-row inmates who will benefit from the new law is Thomas A. Porter. He was sentenced to death in 2007 for the killing of Officer Stanley Cornell Reaves, a member of the Norfolk Police Department, during a robbery two years prior.
“This move is particularly saddening for the families of law enforcement officials who were murdered for their commitment to public safety,” Cox said in his statement.
Still, even some who worked within the state’s execution system opposed maintaining the death penalty.
Corrections officer Jerry Givens claims to have participated in over 65 state-run executions during his 17-year tenure with the Virginia Department of Corrections. But following his retirement in 1999, he turned to activism against capital punishment.
“The people who pass these bills, they don’t have to do it,” he told lawmakers in a 2010 hearing as the state considered an effort to expand the death penalty to those convicted of being an accomplice to murder. “The people who do the executions, they’re the ones who suffer through it.”
Givens, who spoke across the U.S. and internationally on the topic, died at age 67 of the coronavirus in March 2020. Just ahead of his death, he reached out to the Death Penalty Information Center in what would be his last public missive.
“With this coronavirus that has taken control over our country,” he wrote to the group, “executions should be the last thing on the list. Let us join together and pray that things will get better.”