Virginia becomes first state in the South to abolish the death penalty

Posted at 10:16 AM, Mar 24, 2021

RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia became the first state in the south to abolish the death penalty -- a dramatic turnaround for a state that has executed more people in its history than any other.

This historic legislation was officially signed into law by Gov. Northam Wednesday afternoon, about one month after legislators voted in favor of ending the practice.

“The Virginia General Assembly has finally caught up with Virginians," said Delegate Mike Mullin (D - of Newport News, who wrote the bill.

Mullin said Virginia ending capital punishment has been decades in the making, as the General Assembly first began discussions to end the death penalty in the early 1970s.

"Virginia juries are given an opportunity to put somebody to death at least once a month here in Virginia," Mullin explained. "And they declined to do so for 11 years. It's not for lack of opportunity. Instead, Virginia juries don't want to issue the death penalty, even when they've been given the opportunity.”

The Commonwealth has executed nearly 1,400 people in its 408-year history, and 113 people since 1976. Texas is the only state that's used the death penalty more since the 1970s.

Northam signed the bill at 2 p.m. at Greensville Correctional Center, meaning Virginia’s 15 capital punishment crimes now become aggravated murder, punishable by a life sentence.

Opponents of the legislation raised concerns about justice for victims and their family members. But Mullin says any innocent life taken is one too many.

"What do you say to the last innocent person who's been executed?," asked Mullins. "What do you say to their family, if after we put them to death, we find out that they were innocent? Not saying that there aren't bad people in prison, and there aren't bad people out there. But if we put someone to death and then find out later that they're innocent, we can't unmake that."

Mullin also believes the death penalty is a profoundly racist institution.

"We've executed almost 1,400 people, and the first time that a white man was executed for killing a black man was in 1997," said Mullin. "Out of the 1,400 that's only happened four times. And the reason is because, statistically, the most likely indicator that you're going to be put to the death penalty is if it is a black defendant and a white victim. That's racist. We need to put an end to it.”

According to Mullin, statistical analysis shows 2% to `10% of all verdicts in the United States are wrong, and 144 people that have been on death row nationwide have later been exonerated.

Two men who are currently on death row will remain in prison without the possibility of parole.

Anthony Juniper, 49, was sentenced for the 2004 murders of Keshia Stephens, her brother Rueben Harrison III and two of her daughters, Nykia Stephens, 4 and Sharyia Stephens, 2.

Thomas Alexander Porter, 45, was sentenced to death for the 2005 capital murder of Norfolk Police Officer Stanley Reaves.