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Progress in 5 Minutes: The Death Penalty

Virginia is poised to abolish the death penalty. We explain why this is a big deal.

Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar

Perhaps you’ve heard that Virginia is set to abolish the state’s death penalty. Symbolically, it’s a big deal—the first execution in the now-US happened in Jamestown colony in 1608, and Virginia would become the first southern state to ban capital punishment. A disproportionate number of Black men have been sentenced to death throughout Virginia history, mirroring the death penalty throughout the US as a whole. Racial disparities in Virginia have been particularly unjust; opponents have called capital punishment a “legalized form of lynching,” and between 1900 and 1969, all 68 people convicted of rape or attempted rape and sentenced to death were Black men. Virginia has executed a higher percentage of people on death row than any other state in the modern era (more than 1,300), and killed the highest number of women and young offenders, according to anti-death penalty organizations. 

How we got here:

It took decades of advocacy work to get to this point (Virginians for Alternatives for the Death Penalty had their first meeting in 1991). According to the Death Penalty Information Center, death sentences have been declining since the late 1990s, which is attributed to better representation by dedicated capital defender offices and clearer jury instructions. The last state execution was of William Morva, a severely mentally ill man convicted of killing a sheriff’s deputy and security guard near Virginia Tech in 2006. Former Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) denied a request for clemency in 2017, allowing for the execution. One of Morva’s victim’s daughters had previously called for the state to instead sentence Morva to life in prison. 

In February 2021, the Virginia House and Senate voted to abolish capital punishment, which Governor Ralph Northam (D) has said he plans to sign. Virginia currently has two men on death row—Anthony Juniper, 50, and Thomas Porter, 44, both of whom have been convicted of murder and whose sentences will be commuted to life in prison. 

Zooming out:

Virginia will be the 23rd state to abolish capital punishment. Colorado became the 22nd State in 2020.

Federal executions:

The Trump administration resumed federal executions in July 2020 after a 17-year break, rapidly carrying out 13 executions during the COVID-19 pandemic—a move that unfortunately also “likely acted as a superspreader event,” according to the Associated Press. Despite Trump’s deadly spree, 2020 saw the lowest number of state executions in 37 years and the lowest number of new death sentences in the modern era, which the Death Penalty Information Center attributes to COVID-19 court delays and the momentum of the racial justice movement.

President Joe Biden campaigned on ending the federal death penalty, becoming the first president to do so and win the election, according to Time. Biden hasn’t taken any official action to make good on this promise yet; in late January, Reps. Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley sent a letter to the president calling for him to commute the sentences of all federal death row inmates and hold new sentencing. 

Credit: Death Penalty Information Center

Worldwide:

Around the world, 70 percent of countries have abolished the death penalty, most recently Guinea in 2017, the same year United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said that “the death penalty has no place in the 21st century.” Amnesty International found that executions around the world hit a 10-year low in 2019, but also that the countries that do execute people peaked (Saudi Arabia, for example, executed 184 people in a year, the highest number ever recorded).

What We’re Watching:

Arizona, California, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington have bills in play to abolish the death penalty.

What We’re Watching Even Harder:

Lawmakers in Connecticut, New York, Iowa have introduced bills to reinstate the death penalty. Washington makes an appearance again: SB 5047 would remove the death penalty from state laws; SB 5099 would reinstate the death penalty for incarcerated people convicted of murder. Two bills in Arkansas are proposing making rape of a child and fentanyl trafficking capital offenses. 

A writer and editor based in Leipzig, Germany, Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar is a contributor to The Progress Network. She is also editor-at-large at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.