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One of the death penalty’s former strongholds will abolish it

Virginia used to execute more people than any state other than Texas. Now it’s abolishing executions.

An execution chamber.
The number of death row inmates in Virginia fell from 50 in the 1990s to just five in 2017.
Joe Raedle/Newsmakers via Getty Images
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

The Commonwealth of Virginia executed more people in the last 45 years than any state other than Texas. After the Supreme Court established the modern legal framework governing death sentences in Gregg v. Georgia in 1976, it is one of a handful of states that executed more than a dozen people in a single year.

But Virginia also hasn’t executed anyone since 2017, and it will soon abolish the death penalty altogether. The state legislature gave its final approval to legislation ending capital punishment in Virginia on Monday. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, intends to sign the bill.

Virginia’s decision to halt executions is possible because of demographic changes that have transformed the one-time Republican stronghold into an increasingly reliable blue state. Northern Virginia has long provided homes to much of Washington, DC’s cosmopolitan workforce, but this region has grown both more diverse and more Democratic in recent years, especially in DC’s formerly conservative exurbs.

Meanwhile, Richmond, Virginia’s low rents and mild climate make it an attractive place for young professionals to move — and these professionals often bring liberal views that have transformed the politics of the former capital of the Confederacy.

The result is that Northam is the first Democratic governor of the state to serve alongside a Democratic state legislature since former Gov. Douglas Wilder, who left office in 1994 — and Wilder led the state at a time when Southern Democrats were often quite conservative. With unified Democratic control of its elected branches, Virginia expanded Medicaid. It’s also recently enacted laws barring LGBTQ discrimination, rolling back restrictions on abortion, regulating guns, and expanding voting rights.

The state took a significant step to reduce death sentences, however, long before it became a blue state. A 2002 state law created four Regional Capital Defender officers, and the state started paying much higher fees to capital defense lawyers in private practice — at one point, the state capped such lawyers’ fees at $650 per case, all but ensuring that many capital defendants would receive incompetent representation.

As a result of this law, the number of death row inmates in Virginia fell from 50 in the 1990s to just five in 2017.

Virginia’s previous aggressive use of the death penalty, in other words, existed largely because capital defendants frequently received inadequate representation at their trials. As the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in 2001, “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.”

And, when Northam signs the legislation that the state legislature just passed, no one at all will receive the death penalty in Virginia.