Southern-State Legislative Lessons from Virginia’s Abolition of the Death Penalty

Aidan C. Williams

The lives of Virginia’s last two death-row inmates were recently saved by the legal system—but not quite in the typical way for Southern states. With the stroke of a pen, Governor Ralph Northam signed Senate Bill 1165 at Greensville Correctional Center,[1] ending capital punishment altogether in the state that has executed the most prisoners since America’s colonial days.[2] The new law also commuted the sentences of the two aforementioned inmates, Anthony Juniper and Thomas Porter.[3]

As opponents of the death penalty note, capital punishment is faulty for a number of reasons. The penalty is not widely effective at deterring violent crime and remains financially costly.[4]  Yet, worst of all, capital punishment has been unfairly applied across racial lines, which hopefully explains its decreasing support in public opinion.[5]

Recognizing these historic errors, the Virginia General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1165, abolishing the state’s death penalty. Many in the national news media point to the new Democratic majorities in the state legislature as the reason for the Bill’s passage,[6] which is, of course, the reason the Bill ultimately arrived at the Governor’s desk. Interestingly, however, Senate Bill 1165 was first introduced by a Democrat and Republican duo, Virginia state Senators Scott Surovell and Bill Stanley.[7] Eventually though, the legislation was backed by almost no Republicans—including an abstention from its original G.O.P. co-patron, Senator Stanley, himself.[8]

The media has also rightfully pointed out that Virginia is the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty, but will the legislative strategy that worked in the Commonwealth carry the day in other Southern states?

When Senate Bill 1165 was introduced, Senator Stanley’s decision to join the effort to end capital punishment in Virginia was encouraging. After all, having a conservative Republican on board would not only help the legislation advance in the Commonwealth, but would also serve as a model for other Southern states that do not have Democratic majorities in their legislatures. However, Senator Stanley’s ultimate abstention came as a result of Democrats’ inability to accept a proposal that would prohibit parole eligibility following commutation for those convicted of murder.[9] This failure to compromise ultimately led to Senate Bill 1165 being an almost exclusively Democratic legislative achievement—but at what regional cost?

Modern use of the death penalty is still most pervasive in the South,[10] but it is only likely to be abolished there with bipartisan legislative support. Since 1976, the South has executed 1250 people, compared to 191 in the Midwest, 87 in the West, 4 in the Northeast, and 570 in Texas.[11] Yet, apart from Virginia, state legislatures in the South are all controlled by Republicans.[12] Thus, if capital punishment opponents want to secure more legislative victories, they are going to have to either flip legislative bodies altogether (a daunting task), or work with Republicans like Senator Stanley to get it done. As Virginia’s recent story demonstrates, abolishing the death penalty with G.O.P. support might mean compromise, but at the same time, it could coalesce a broader, bipartisan coalition against the faulty practice. After all, not every Southern state has seen the type of partisan shifting that Virginia has in recent years.

Republican Senator Stanley, a defense lawyer, stated his opposition to capital punishment is rooted in his pro-life stance and his qualms with the “irrefutable proof that our criminal justice system has sentenced innocent people to die.”[13] He certainly cannot be the only G.O.P. legislator in the South who feels this way.

Death penalty opponents have every reason to celebrate Virginia’s recent abolition of capital punishment—apart from Texas, the Commonwealth has executed more inmates than any other state in modern United States history.[14] However, if that success is to extend more broadly across the South, perhaps future legislative vehicles to abolish the death penalty should start—and end—with wider bipartisan support.


[1] Denise Lavoie, Virginia with 2nd-Most Executions, Outlaws Death Penalty, Associated Press (Mar. 24, 2021), https://apnews.com/article/virginia-to-end-death-penalty-ralph-northam-0a5b51f2e4458a0600bce6b75e6389bd.

[2] Peter Dujardin, Since 1608, Virginia has Executed More People Than Any Other State. It May Now Abolish the Death Penalty, The Virginian-Pilot (Jan. 31, 2021), https://www.pilotonline.com/news/crime/dp-nw-virginia-death-penalty-20210131-gs3b423zcjchddnfzpmfgxuoea-story.html.

[3] Lavoie, supra note 1.

[4] Id.

[5] Facts About the Death Penalty, Death Penalty Info. Ctr., https://cdn2.assets-servd.host/alike-kingfisher/production/documents/pdf/FactSheet.pdf (last updated Mar. 24, 2021).

[6] See, e.g., Lavoie, supra note 1.

[7] S.B. 1165, 2021 Sess. (Va. 2021).

[8] SB 1165 Death Penalty; Abolition of Current Penalty, Va.’s Legis. Info. Sys., https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?212+sum+SB1165 (last visited Mar. 30, 2021).

[9] Whittney Evans & David Streever, Lawmakers in Virginia Vote to Abolish the Death Penalty, NPR (Feb. 5, 2021, 3:33 PM), https://www.npr.org/2021/02/05/964514242/lawmakers-in-virginia-vote-to-abolish-the-death-penalty.

[10] See Facts About the Death Penalty, supra note 5.

[11] Id.

[12] State Partisan Composition, Nat’l Conference of State Legislatures, https://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/partisan-composition.aspx (last updated Mar. 16, 2021).

[13] Bill Stanley, Stanley: A Conservative Viewpoint on Ending the Death Penalty, The Roanoke Times (Jan. 31, 2021), https://roanoke.com/opinion/columnists/stanley-a-conservative-viewpoint-on-ending-the-death-penalty/article_4265ef26-60bd-11eb-9160-ff8b81dce4c8.html.

[14] See Lavoie, supra note 1.

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