Virginia Becomes First Southern State to Abolish the Death Penalty



The bill, which the Virginia House and Senate passed last month, stipulates that the sentences of the remaining death row inmates be converted to life in prison without eligibility for parole. The inmates will also not qualify for good conduct allowance, sentence credits or conditional release. Where there were once dozens of prisoners on the state’s death row, now there will be none. The last man to be put to death by the state was William Morva, an escaped prisoner who killed an unarmed hospital security guard and a corporal participating in his manhunt. He was executed in 2017.

On Wednesday, State Senator Scott Surovell, a Democrat, visited the execution chamber for the first time since the early 1990s, when he toured the facility as a governor’s fellow. The gurney was new, Mr. Surovell said, adding that the same wooden chair remained but that there were also at least two digital clocks on the white walls that he did not recall.

One hundred and two prisoners were executed in that chamber since its opening in 1991, according to the governor’s office. Mr. Surovell, who introduced the legislation in the Senate, said the gurney and the chair should be displayed in a museum.

“People are going to be looking at them going, ‘What in the world were those people thinking doing that?’” he said. He compared Virginia’s historical use of the death penalty to the Trump administration’s spasm of executions in its final months.

Todd C. Peppers, a professor at Roanoke College who has written extensively about the death penalty in Virginia, said the Supreme Court had long served as a more significant check on the state’s use of the death penalty than any change in public opinion. In 2000, the state executed a man who was 17 when he murdered his girlfriend’s parents. About five years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of those who were minors at the time of their crimes was unconstitutional. Additionally, a case out of Virginia prompted the Supreme Court in 2002 to abolish the death penalty for those with intellectual disabilities.

“It’s a long, bloody history, and it’s astonishing that a state like Virginia, a former Confederate state, a state that so enthusiastically embraced the death penalty, is abolishing it,” Mr. Peppers said. “I never thought I’d see this.”


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