Governor Ralph Northam (D-VA) signed yesterday bills approved by both the Virginia State House and Senate abolishing the death penalty in the commonwealth. The law enters into effect immediately, changing the sentences of those condemned to death to life imprisonment without parole, which would currently affect only two prisoners.
In a statement released to the press, Gov. Northam argued that the death penalty is “inequitable, ineffective, and has no place in this Commonwealth” while also highlighting that black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death with other lawmakers, like Delegate Jay Jones calling the death penalty a “direct descendant of lynching” and “state-sponsored racism”.
Republicans, on the other hand, had argued that the measure had to be maintained in order to provide justice for the most heinous crimes and offenses. However, both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion are all controlled by Democrats, so the measure passed swiftly, with the House approving it in a 57-41 margin and the Senate voting 22-16 for its approval.
The Commonwealth of Virginia becomes the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, with other three states also having their governors declared moratoriums on further death penalties, which means that 26 states have effectively suspended the death penalty on the country as of today. Although Virginia holds the historic title on most execution in the Union, the state had only executed 4 prisoners since 2011, a much lower number than Texas’ 95 in the same period of time.
Future of the death penalty in America
The latest decision by the Virginia statehouse illustrates the current political trajectory on the issue of the death penalty, which has gone from being highly supported by the general population during the 1990’s to being able to command a slight majority in public opinion in the present. According to Gallup, that keeps a historic record on polling in this issue, the American public wnet from a record-high 80% support on the death penalty in 1996 to 55% in 2020, a substantial reduction throughout time.
This significant decline on the support of the death penalty comes at the same time as the general decline on the rate of violent crimes in the U.S. since the 1990’s, with violent offenses plunging 49% in the time period between 1993 and 2019, according to data from the FBI analyzed by the Pew Research Center.
There is a significant partisan divide among party lines between those who support or oppose the death sentence, with the Pew Research Center publishing a 2018 survey showing 77% of Registered Republicans support the measure and only 35% of Democrats thinking the same. Independents, expectedly, ranged more in the middle range with 52% supporting it and 40% rejecting it.
This partisan divide can be clearly observed at the state level, as 21 of the 24 states where the death penalty is still enforced voting for Donald Trump in 2020, while 21 of the 26 states that have either abolished or suspended the death penalty were won by Joe Biden in 2020.
The number of executions (both federal and statewide) has declined significantly over the last twenty years. With 504 inmates being executed from 2001-2011, while only 294 sentences being carried out from 2011 to today, according to the database published by the Death Penalty Information Center.
This 294 figure, however, can be a little misleading as 106 of those executions were carried out in the state of Texas, while the rest of the country has not had a number higher than 30 death sentences, with most of the states in the country also following the national trend of a reduction in the death penalty.
Another factor that has been playing against the use of the death penalty throughout the country is the growing shortage on the drug cocktail used for lethal injections, with some states halting their programmed executions due to the lack of available means to carry out the executions and other states even voting in favor of bringing back firing squads as an alternative to lethal injection.
Although the Federal government had resumed the implementation of the death penalty during the last year of the Trump presidency, the transfer on power and the slow but constant dislike of the American public towards the measure might provide some political momentum to those who oppose the death penalty.