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Virginia Moves to Abolish Death Penalty - Earl Washington's case cited as pivotal reason

Wall Street Journal - Virginia is poised to become the latest state to ban capital punishment after both houses of the Democratic-led legislature voted to repeal the death penalty.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has said he would sign the bill, which would make Virginia the 23rd state, and the first in the South, to abolish capital punishment.

The Virginia bill’s passage marks a further erosion of support for the death penalty in the U.S. It also adds to the growing list of progressive measures gaining approval in Virginia since Democrats won control of the state legislature in the 2019 elections.

Virginia’s House of Delegates voted 57-41 to abolish the death penalty Friday, two days after the state Senate backed a repeal more narrowly along party lines. Virginia has put to death 113 inmates since 1976, when capital punishment was reinstated in the U.S. after the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a research organization critical of the death penalty. Only Texas has put to death more inmates during that period. Ten other states have abolished capital punishment since 2004. Colorado was the most recent to do so when its Democratic-led legislature passed a repeal bill last year. Unlike many of those states, Virginia has carried out executions relatively recently. In 2017, the state executed William Morva by lethal injection over his conviction in the killing of a sheriff’s deputy and a hospital security guard during an attempted escape from custody. The state currently has two inmates on death row.

The House vote in Virginia came after a short floor debate. Del. Robert Orrock, a Republican who voted against the measure, said he was concerned about prisoners serving life sentences becoming eligible for parole.

“If life in prison truly meant life in prison, I think I would consider this measure in a totally different light,” he said.

Mr. Northam has made a death-penalty ban part of his platform. “It’s still vital to make sure our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably,” he said in his State of the Commonwealth address last month. “We know the death penalty doesn’t do that.”

He and other lawmakers have cited the case of Earl Washington, a former death-row inmate in Virginia who was awarded a stay of execution days before its scheduled time and was later exonerated by DNA evidence.

Nationwide, use of capital punishment peaked in the late 1990s—reaching 98 executions in 1999—and has generally trended downward since as public support has sagged. A majority of Americans still favor the death penalty, according to a recent Gallup poll. But surveys in Virginia have shown more voter opposition. No state has carried out a death sentence since July, with a number of executions halted or delayed—through stays, reprieves or reschedulings—because of coronavirus-related precautions.

Most executions last year were carried out under the federal death penalty. President Biden, unlike former President Donald Trump, is a death-penalty opponent and during his campaign called for replacing capital punishment with life sentences without parole.


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