Virginia abolishes death penalty after marathon of federal executions

Chris Doyle, World/Business Editor

On February 5, the Commonwealth of Virginia Legislature passed a resolution to abolish capital punishment in the state. Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is likely to sign the bill when it comes to his desk, according to the BBC. 

The Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in the 1972 case of Furman v Georgia. Four years later–as the Court began moving in a more conservative direction–it upheld newer state laws regarding the execution of convicted felons, beginning with the case of Gregg v Georgia. The Death Penalty Information Center lists 22 states–before Virginia’s abolition resolution–where capital punishment is outlawed. It remains in effect in 20 states, with three states [California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania] having Gubernatorial Moratoriums that halt further executions. These three can be overturned by the will of any new governor until the State Legislature passes a law like Virginia’s. 

Virginia’s extensive history with the death penalty goes back to its days as a Crown Colony in 1608, when Captain George Kendall of the Jamestown Council was killed by firing squad for alleged espionage, according to Virginians for an Alternative to the Death Penalty. They report that since the resumption of executions in the United States, Virginia–with 111 executions–comes behind only Texas and Oklahoma for the number of inmates put to death, however, it holds the record for the most  executions throughout its combined history since early settlement, including for the most women and minors. 

In 2020, the federal government oversaw the executions of 10 people, and three more people in 2021 shortly before the inauguration of President Biden, who campaigned on abolishing the death penalty. The last case before the Supreme Court regarding a stay plea came on January 15 in United States v. Dustin John Higgs, who was executed the following day. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote “After seventeen years without a single federal execution, the Government has executed twelve people since July. They are Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken, Lezmond Mitchell, Keith Nelson, William LeCroy Jr., Christopher Vialva, Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois, Lisa Montgomery, and, just last night, Corey Johnson. Today, Dustin Higgs will become the thirteenth. To put that in historical context, the Federal Government will have executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades.” 

“This is not justice. After waiting almost two decades to resume federal executions, the Government should have proceeded with some measure of restraint to ensure it did so lawfully. When it did not, this Court should have. It has not. Because the Court continues this pattern today, I dissent.”