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Virginia Has Become the First Southern State to Abolish the Death Penalty

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has signed a bill abolishing the death penalty, making Old Dominion the first Southern state to end capital punishment and the 23rd state overall.

“Ending the death penalty comes down to one fundamental question, one question: Is it fair?” Northam told reporters. “For the state to apply this ultimate, final punishment, the answer needs to be yes. Fair means that it is applied equally to anyone, no matter who they are. And fair means that we get it right, that the person punished for the crime did the crime. But we all know that the death penalty cannot meet those criteria.”

It’s a notable move, since Virginia has executed more than 1,300 over its 413-year history — the most of any state. The state has executed 113 people since the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976 — second only to Texas. Advocates have also noted the striking racial disparities of capital punishment. Black people make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 43 percent of the death row. Nationwide, the majority of executions take place in the South.

The final days of the Trump Administration oversaw the federal executions of 13 inmates — a shocking spate of deaths that renewed calls to abolish the death penalty at the federal level. President Joe Biden has said he will work to bring an end to capital punishment, though such efforts would meet stern Republican opposition.

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The Times spoke with Todd C. Peppers, a professor at Roanoke College who has written about the death penalty. “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,” Peppers said. “I never thought I’d see this.”

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