Virginia abolished the death penalty on Wednesday. “Today, there is no place for the death penalty in this state, in the south and in this country,” Democratic Governor Ralph Northam said at a signing ceremony for the law in prison de Greensville, where the executions had hitherto taken place. Abolition of the death penalty is “the right thing and the moral thing to do,” he said.
He mentioned in particular the case of Earl Washington, a disabled man who had been sentenced to death in 1984 and whose execution had been suspended only nine days before the scheduled date. He was finally acquitted in 2000. “The system allowed an innocent person to be convicted of murder and if Earl Washington is the only person we know of to have been saved from death row in Virginia, can we really be sure? that there are no others? ”he asked.
“You cannot inflict this ultimate punishment without being 100% sure that you are right and you cannot inflict this ultimate punishment on someone knowing that the system does not work the same for everyone. He explained, pointing out that 296 of the 377 prisoners executed in the 20th century were African Americans.
A total of 23 US states where the death penalty is abolished
Governor Northam pointed to Virginia’s “long and complicated” history where “the racism and discrimination of our past is repeated today in our justice system”.
After very tense debates, the two State Chambers voted in favor of a law to abolish the death penalty earlier this year.
Virginia joins 22 other American states where the death penalty has already been abolished and three others (California, Oregon, Pennsylvania) which observe a moratorium.
The first state of the former Confederate South to take the plunge
European settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, carried out in 1608 what is considered the first execution on American soil, that of a captain accused of espionage. Since then, Virginia has executed 1,391 convicts, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), more than any other U.S. territory. And since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, only Texas has carried out more executions.
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The new law is all the more symbolic as no state of the former Confederate South had yet taken this step. Virginia was once home to the capital of the Confederate States during the Civil War (1861-1865) and its application of the death penalty is linked to its slavery past. The first slaves captured in Africa landed in Virginia in 1619.
A hailed decision
The executive director of the Information Center on the Death Penalty, Robert Dunham, hailed the governor’s “extraordinarily significant” decision, as the application of the death penalty continues to decline nationally. It is also “a historic point in race relations in the United States”, he added, recalling that capital punishment in this state “is deeply rooted in slavery, lynchings and segregationist laws”.
The European Union also welcomed the signing of this law. “The death penalty is incompatible with human dignity and the right to life, constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment, and has no proven deterrent effect,” an EU spokesperson said in a statement. .
For the past ten years, however, Virginia had virtually renounced the death penalty and only two convicts remained on death row. The law provides that their sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. “The government will not execute anyone any more, but be sure: if you commit the most serious of crimes, you will be punished,” warned Ralph Northam.
In 2020, most states suspended executions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Against the grain, Donald Trump’s administration has however returned to federal executions, interrupted for 17 years, and put to death 13 convicts between July and his departure from the White House. This unprecedented series is not expected to continue, his successor Joe Biden having promised to work to abolish the federal death penalty.