Lawmakers in Virginia are expected to vote on Friday to make it the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty, a significant sign of the waning support for capital punishment across the US as the practice is weighed at the federal level.
The state’s Democratic-led House of Delegates is scheduled to vote on a measure to end the practice. The Senate passed the measure earlier this week, and Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said he will sign a repeal into law.
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Virginia has conducted 1,390 executions since 1608, the most in the US and 68 more than Texas, the state with the second most executions. Virginia last carried out an execution in 2017.
Two men remain on Virginia’s death row, including Thomas Porter, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 2005.
During a debate on the bill by the Virginia House on Thursday, several Republican lawmakers said the death penalty must be retained for the gravest crimes.
“The ultimate punishment has to be available for the ultimate crime,” Jason Miyares, a Republican, said, as he held up pictures of Virginia murder victims.
Some Democratic lawmakers said they would vote to abolish the punishment in part because it is disproportionately used against Black people, has become increasingly veiled in secrecy, and there is the risk of executing of a person wrongly convicted.
Democratic lawmaker Kathleen Murphy said her brother was murdered years ago and one of his killers is still on death row, but she would vote to repeal.
“People are put to death, more often, because of the color of their skin than because they are the real criminal who was involved in the crime,” she said. “And there are no do-overs.”
Virginia’s vote comes as support for capital punishment decreases in the United States. According to Gallup, support for the practice has dropped from 80 percent in the 1990 to 55 percent in 2020.
It is also being weighed at the national level.
Former President Donald Trump, a Republican, resumed the execution of prisoners on federal death row last summer after a 17-year hiatus, killing 13 people convicted of murder. That followed six decades which saw a total of three federal executions. Last year was the first time the US government executed more people than all 50 state governments combined.
Democrat Joe Biden took office last month as the first US president to commit to seeking to abolish the federal death penalty. Lawmakers in Congress are asking him to support bills that would repeal the death penalty.
Most countries have abolished capital punishment, and the United Nations has long called for a moratorium on executions and urged its abolition worldwide.