Virginia will become the first southern state in the United States to abolish the death penalty. The Democrats, a majority in both chambers since 2019, voted definitively in favor of this deletion on Monday, February 22, with the support of an elected Republican in the Senate and two others in the State House. Virginia Democratic Governor Ralph Nordham has long pledged to sign any such legislation that would be passed by local Congress.
Monday’s votes are a major step forward for the abolitionist movement since the resumption of capital executions in 1976. It was indeed in what was still a British colony that the first condemned man in the New World was hanged in 1608. Virginia has since then had the highest number of executions in the United States, nearly 1,400, the last having occurred in 2017. Since the restoration of the supreme punishment, this state has only been left behind by Texas, with 113 executions against 570 in the Lone Star State.
A testament to its slavery past, the death penalty in Virginia has been closely linked to racial inequalities, with blacks being particularly victims of more severe sentence scales than whites. This inequality persisted even after they had been declared unconstitutional, due to exclusively white juries according to the abolitionist organization Death Penalty Information Center, cited by the Washington Post. Between 1900 and 1969, no white man had been executed for rape, attempted rape or theft, unlike 73 African-Americans. The racial factor partly explains Monday’s votes. They come a few months after the strong mobilization triggered by the death of George Floyd, an African-American, in Minneapolis, suffocated by the knee of a white policeman. This death dramatically revived the Black Lives Matter movement.
La Viriginie, twenty-third abolitionist state
But it is above all the slow transformation of the Democrats of Virginia, a former Republican stronghold, which allowed this advance to which the majority of elected Republicans remain opposed. Two of Ralph Nordham’s Democratic predecessors, Tim Kaine (2006-2010), and Terry McAuliffe (2014-2018), both personally opposed to capital punishment because of their Catholic faith, had allowed it to apply death sentences during their respective terms. Elected officials of their party had also voted in 2007 in favor of a provision extending this sentence to the instigator of a crime, in addition to its executor. Now all the Democratic candidates for the governor’s succession, who cannot stand for re-election, have taken a stand in favor of the abolition of the death penalty.
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