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Virginia poised to become first state in U.S. South to repeal death penalty

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Gov. Ralph Northam is committing to sign legislation passed by the General Assembly ending the death penalty in Virginia into law.

Northam committed himself on Monday to signing bills passed in the House of Delegates and Senate earlier this month.

The commitment came in a joint statement from Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw.

“It is vital that our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably. We all know the death penalty doesn’t do that. It is inequitable, ineffective, and inhumane,” the three said in the joint statement.

“Over Virginia’s long history, this Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state. And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person. It’s time we stop this machinery of death.

“Thanks to the vote of lawmakers in both chambers, Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended use of the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all.”

The statement from state leaders elicited this statement from Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia:

“Today Virginia made history by becoming the first state in the South poised to repeal the death penalty. The General Assembly passed legislation that Gov. Ralph Northam has committed to sign into law. Abolishing the death penalty is an important step in the process of bringing racial justice to Virginia’s criminal legal system. In Virginia, the death penalty has always been about race. Prior to a Supreme Court ruling in 1978, 90% of people who were killed by the Commonwealth were Black. Even today, someone who commits murder is far more likely to get the death penalty if their victim is white, and less likely if the victim is Black.

“We are grateful that our legislators finally acted to abolish this racist and inhumane practice. As we celebrate, we acknowledge that it is thanks to the collective work of so many advocates and organizations over many years that delivered this victory for justice today.

“More than 20 years ago, the ACLU of Virginia released a report called Unequal, Unfair and Irreversible Death: The Death Penalty in Virginia as a ‘springboard to further study.’ There have been many stalwart advocates then and since – people like Marie Deans and our past executive director Kent Willis – and leaders from Virginians Against the Death Penalty and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, who together with the bipartisan legislative patrons of this year’s repeal bills, have made this outcome possible.

“Capital punishment is, and has always been, a broken process that needed to end. We’re glad that perseverance and resilience paid off today.”

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