Virginia lawmakers on Monday voted to abolish the death penalty, making it the first Southern state to end capital punishment.
When Gov. Ralph Northam, a supporter of the legislation, signs the legislation to repeal capital punishment legislation, Virginia will be the 23rd state to make this move.
The bill narrowly passed the Senate with a vote of 21-17 on Feb. 3, with one Republican crossing party lines. The bill passed the House by a 57-to-43 vote in which two Republicans voted with the Democrats.
Virginia’s House, Senate and executive branches of government are all led by Democrats.
Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw issued a joint statement Monday after both houses of the General Assembly voted to end the death penalty in the commonwealth.
“It is vital that our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably. We all know the death penalty doesn’t do that. It is inequitable, ineffective, and inhumane,” the statement reads.
“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. It’s time we stop this machinery of death.”
The leaders called the legislation’s passage “an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all.”
Northam also praised the bill’s passage in a tweet.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Virginia has executed more people since its founding than in any other state.
Two Virginia men remain on death row for murder, and the legislation will change their sentences to life in prison without parole,according to The Associated Press.
Republicans largely voted in opposition to the identical bills in the Senate and House, raising concerns about justice for the victims of murder and their family members. Republicans argued that some crimes are so heinous that the guilty deserve execution.
Republican Del. Rob Bell described the killings the two men on death row were sentenced for, which involved the murder of five individuals, including two children.
“We have five dead Virginias that this bill will make sure that their killers will not receive justice,” Bell was quoted as saying during a virtual House debate.
Views regarding the death penalty vary widely among Christians.
In 2018, 61% of mainline Protestants supported the death penalty, compared to 53% of Catholics,according to Pew Research. The survey found that 73% of white evangelical Protestants expressed support for the death penalty, while 19% oppose it.
Prison Fellowship, an evangelical prison ministry that also works to restore America’s criminal justice system, published an article on its website called “A Call to Dialogue on Capital Punishment.” The aim of the article is to show the points of division in Christian arguments for and against the death penalty.
The article, written by former Justice Fellowhsip Director Dan Van Ness, discusses the range of views — from the “Scripture mandates capital punishment,” and the “Scripture prohibits capital punishment,” to the “Scripture permits capital punishment.” The article includes Bible verses to bolster the evidence for each perspective.
Though Catholic support for the death penalty is divided, Catholic leadership supports abolishing the death penalty.
When Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church in 2018, he called the death penalty “inadmissible” and “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good,” a Vatican statement at the time explained.
“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”
In 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention released a resolution on capital punishment. The document traced the origins of the death penalty back to Genesis.
A portion of the resolution reads: “the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, … support the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death. …”
“Be it further RESOLVED, That we urge that capital punishment be administered only when the pursuit of truth and justice result in clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt,” the resolution added.