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Virginia governor signs death penalty repeal

Virginia state capitol Virginia state capitol/ Credit: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) signed a bill Wednesday ending the death penalty in Virginia, making the commonwealth the 23rd state to abolish the practice.

“Signing this new law is the right thing to do,” Northam said at a signing ceremony at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, the former site of executions in the state. “It is the moral thing to do to end the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Northam called the move a “major change” in a commonwealth “that has a long history with capital punishment.” 

Throughout its 412-year history as an English colony and a state, Virginia has put to death almost 1,400 people - more than any other state, according to AP. Since 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, more than any state except Texas.

It is now the first southern state to end capital punishment. 

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The Virginia Catholic Conference supported the repeal legislation, which was approved by the state’s legislature last month. 

“Looking back, we sadly reflect on our Commonwealth’s disturbing and tragic history of executions – carried out more frequently here than in any other state in our country’s history,” the state’s bishops said in a joint statement.

“As we move forward, we embrace this hope-filled new beginning,” Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington and Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond stated,” adding that “all human life is sacred. We are grateful to those who worked to make this a reality.”

The bishops said that their dioceses “also continue our prayers for families of victims of horrific crimes and renew our commitment to provide for their pastoral support. We stand ready to accompany them in their journey to find healing and peace.”

The chair of the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice and human development committee also praised the repeal, calling it “a bold step towards a culture of life.”

“Congratulations are in order for the Virginia bishops, the Virginia Catholic Conference, the Catholic Mobilizing Network, and all other advocates who worked very hard to achieve this historic result,” Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City stated on Wednesday.

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During Lent, he added, Catholics “are reminded that God created and loves every person, and we can respond to this love with reverence for the dignity of every human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled, or desperate that life may seem.”

He also called on “all other states and the federal government” to follow suit and repeal their death penalty statutes.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of the anti-death penalty advocacy group Catholic Mobilizing Network, said in a statement that Virginia’s repeal “signifies the growing consensus that capital punishment is a flawed and morally bankrupt system that violates the sanctity of human life.”

“From the pews to the pulpit, many Virginia Catholics were persistent advocates who paved the way for the commonwealth’s abolition of the death penalty,” Vaillancourt Murphy said. 

The Catholic Mobilizing Network said Virginia has “a long history of slavery, lynching, and systemic racism,” and the modern death penalty system in the United States “is a direct byproduct of these legacies of racial violence.” 

“We are hopeful that Virginia’s repeal will signal to other southern states that the death penalty is an immoral and racist relic,” Vaillancourt Murphy said. 

Although Catholic groups including the Virginia Catholic Conference praised Wednesday’s action, they have criticized Northam in the past for his efforts to expand abortion in the state. Northam signed abortion bills in both 2020 and 2021, the former signing taking place on Good Friday.

Northam also sparked a national controversy in 2019 when, during a radio interview on a bill legalizing some third-trimester abortions, he infamously appeared to defend infanticide. Northam said that under the proposed legislation, if a baby was delivered alive following a botched abortion, a “conversation” should ensue between the mother and doctor about whether to attempt to administer care while the baby would be “kept comfortable.”

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, told CNA in an interview that she is thrilled by Northam’s death penalty repeal, and she hopes he will adopt a consistent position on the sanctity of human life. 

“As a Virginia resident, I hope we’re paving the way for other states to follow,” Day said. “I think this is really good news.”

Day said her group is “pro-life for the whole life” and that capital punishment “has no place in a pro-life society” - but neither does abortion. 

“Violence is never the answer,” Day said. “We would urge him [Northam] to bring some consistency to his position and join us in protecting life from womb to tomb. It’s not consistent of him to protect some lives but not others.” 

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Anti-death penalty advocates recently told EWTN News In-Depth that they hope a federal ban on the death penalty is within reach, since President Joe Biden is the first sitting president to publicly oppose the practice. 

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This article was updated on Wednesday afternoon to include the statement by Archbishop Coakley.

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