Death Penalty in Decline
February 23, 2021

Virginia, historically America's most prolific practitioner of capital punishment, will become the first state in the South to abolish the death penalty as soon as Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signs legislation given final approval Monday. The state Senate passed the House's capital punishment ban 22 to 16, with one Republican joining all Senate Democrats. The House of Delegates passed an identical Senate bill 57 to 43, with support from two Republicans.

"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," Northam, Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (D), and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D) said in a joint statement after the vote. The death penalty is "inequitable, ineffective, and inhumane," and "it's time we stop this machinery of death."

Once Northam signs the legislation, Virginia will be the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, following Colorado's ban last year. Virginia has not executed any inmates since 2017 and hasn't sentenced anyone to death since 2011. The two remaining inmates on death row, Thomas Porter and Anthony Juniper, will serve out the rest of their lives in prison.

Since America's first execution in 1608 — when the Jamestown colony executed a Spanish spy — Virginia has put to death 1,390 people, including 113 after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Those 113 executions put Virginia behind only Texas in modern-day use of capital punishment.

Abolishing the death penalty is "just the latest in a long list of sweeping policy changes enacted by Democrats" after they took full control of the General Assembly last year, The Associated Press reports. "Last year, lawmakers passed some of the region's strictest gun laws, broadest LGBTQ protections, its highest minimum wage, and some of its loosest abortion restrictions." Peter Weber

May 30, 2019

New Hampshire's state Senate voted to abolish the death penalty on Thursday, The Washington Post reports.

Today's vote was a blow to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who vetoed a similar measure last year. This time, however, the bill had enough votes to withstand a veto, and after passing through the New Hampshire House in April, the Senate voted to override Sununu 16 to 8.

The bill, which "changes the penalty for capital murder to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole," was mostly symbolic, a demonstration by lawmakers in a state that hasn't had an execution since 1939, and has only one inmate currently on death row. Sununu issued a statement moments after the bill passed, defending his support of the death penalty as "the right thing to do," and said he was "incredibly disappointed" with the Senate's choice.

The death penalty is a rare divisive issue among conservatives. Republicans like state Sen. Sharon Carson and Sununu justify it as a necessary evil, pitting them against colleagues like Republican state Sen. Bob Giuda, who sees the death penalty as incompatible with his pro-life views, calling capital punishment a "ghastly sight," reports the Post.

New Hampshire is the final state in New England to ban the death penalty, and leaves only twenty-nine states still upholding the death penalty nationwide. Other states like California and Pennsylvania have effectively abolished capital punishment through governor-led moratoriums on execution. More than 2,700 inmates sit on death row nationwide. Steven Orlofsky

December 18, 2014

States executed 35 prisoners in 2014, the lowest number since 1994, according to a report from the Death Penalty Information Center. Meanwhile, the number of death sentences fell to 72, the lowest level in four decades.

A shortage of execution drugs and delays prompted by several high-profile botched executions contributed to the downturn this year, according to the group. A sharp drop in violent crime nationwide over the past two decades has also led to a corresponding drop in the number of executions over that span. Jon Terbush

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