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After 412 Years and 1,391 Executions, Virginia Poised to Abolish Death Penalty as Senate Passes Historic Bill

"We're going to look back 50 years from now, and that electric chair and that lethal injection table, they're going be sitting in a museum," predicted Sen. Scott A. Surovell.

Greensville houses the execution chamber used to carry out capital punishment by the Commonwealth of Virginia,USGS

Death penalty abolitionists on Wednesday applauded the passage of a bill by the Virginia Senate that—if passed by the Democrat-controlled House and signed by the Democratic governor as expected—will end capital punishment in the commonwealth after a more than 400-year history. 

The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reports the Senate voted 21-17 along party lines to approve S.B. 1165, introduced by Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon), after a prolonged and charged floor debate. 

"We're going to look back 50 years from now, and that electric chair and that lethal injection table, they're going be sitting in a museum," Surovell predicted. "They're gonna be sitting next to the stocks in Jamestown and Williamsburg. They're going to be sitting next to the slave auctioneer block."

"This thing is going to be a museum piece, and people are going to look back and wonder how it was that we ever used these things," he added. 

During the floor debate, Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) spoke of the days of Black people were lynched while white spectators picnicked nearby.

"Lynchings were the precursor of the death penalty," said Locke. "In the 1940s and 1950s, they simply moved from outside to the inside—legal violence instead of vigilante justice. It is not lost on anyone—it's those states that have a high number of lynchings correlate with their support of the death penalty, including here in Virginia."

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In fact, the very first execution to occur in the English colonies that became the United States happened in Jamestown Colony, Virginia in 1608 when Capt. George Kendall was killed by a firing squad for treason. Four years later, colonial Gov. Sir Thomas Dale enacted the Divine, Moral, and Martial Laws, under which execution was the punishment for crimes including such minor offenses such as stealing grapes, killing chickens, and trading with Indigenous people.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Virginia has executed nearly 1,400 people since then—more than any other state in the union. As in other states, there are troubling racial disparities in the application of capital punishment. While Virginia's population is about 20% Black, Black people make up nearly half of the people executed there since 1976. 

That was the year when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Gregg v. Georgiareinstated the death penalty four years after it was deemed a violation of the Constitution's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" in Furman v. Georgia.

Since resinstatement, Virginia has trailed only Texas, which has put 567 people to death. 

Today, there are only two people on Virginia's death row, and the state has not executed anyone in nearly four years. If the House of Delegates—the state legislature's lower chamber—passes its version of the S.B. 1165 as expected, and if Gov. Ralph Northam signs the measure into law as he has promised, there will be no more executions in Virginia and the two death sentences will be commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Virginia will then become the first Southern state and the 23rd in the nation to end capital punishment. 

Northam led abolitionists in Virginia and across the nation in hailing S.B. 1165's passage. 

"Today's vote in the Virginia Senate is a tremendous step toward ending the death penalty in our commonwealth," he said in a statement. "Virginia has executed more people than any other state. The practice is fundamentally inequitable. It is inhumane. It is ineffective. And we know that in some cases, people on death row have been found innocent."

"It's time for Virginia to join 22 other states and abolish the death penalty," Northam asserted. "I applaud every senator who cast a courageous vote today, and I look forward to signing this bill into law."

Brett Wilkins is staff writer for Common Dreams.

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