Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation on Wednesday abolishing the death penalty.
“There is no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the South, or in this nation,” Northam said in a speech before he signed the bill.
“Over our 400-year history, Virginia has executed more people than any other state,” said Northam. “The death penalty system is fundamentally flawed—it is inequitable, ineffective, and it has no place in this Commonwealth or this country. Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death. Abolishing this inhumane practice is the moral thing to do.”
Virginia became the first southern state to abolish capital punishment. Twenty-three U.S. states have now done so. Over the course of its history, the state has executed more than 1,300, and in modern times is second only to Texas in number of executions, according to Death Penalty Information Center.
The bill Northam signed passed both houses of the legislature last month, and had the support of the Roman Catholic bishops in Virginia.
After the votes, the Roman Catholic bishops in the Commonwealth issued a statement saying they have been “consistently clear in our stand on the abolition legislation this year and on similar legislation in years past, and in our direct interventions before executions occurred in Virginia and at the federal level.”
“We offer — and affirm the utmost need for — prayerful support for the families of victims of horrific crimes,” said Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington and Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond. “We also affirm, with clarity and conviction, the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘[T]he death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.’
“As Pope Francis, his predecessors and the U.S. Catholic bishops have consistently noted, we have other ways to provide punishment and protect society, without resorting to executions,” the statement continued. “We too have been consistently clear in our stand on the abolition legislation this year and on similar legislation in years past, and in our direct interventions before executions occurred in Virginia and at the federal level.”
There are two men on Virginia’s death row today: Anthony Juniper, convicted in the 2004 slayings of his ex-girlfriend, two of her children, and her brother; and Thomas Porter, who received the death penalty for the 2005 killing of a Norfolk police officer. With the abolishment of capital punishment, they will now be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Saints who fought the death penalty (in various ways)