Death Penalty Abolition Gains Momentum After Virginia

Late last month, Virginia became the latest state to end capital punishment, and more repeals could be on the horizon.

Gov. Ralph Northam, left, stands near a gurney with Greensville Correctional Center warden Larry Edmonds, right, at the Greensville Correctional Center prior to signing a bill abolishing the state's death penalty in Jarratt, Va., Wednesday, March 24, 2021.
Gov. Ralph Northam, left, stands near a gurney with Greensville Correctional Center warden Larry Edmonds, right, at the Greensville Correctional Center prior to signing a bill abolishing the state's death penalty in Jarratt, Va., Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (photo: Steve Helber / AP)

RICHMOND, Va. — For Catholic advocates against the death penalty, legislation signed March 24 by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ending capital punishment has been an encouraging sign of the strength of their movement. Virginia is now the 23rd state to abolish the practice and the 11th to do so since 2007. 

“There is a great deal of momentum to end the death penalty in states across the U.S., as evidenced by the four states in as many years that have formally abolished the practice,” Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, told the Register. Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire and Washington have abolished the death penalty since 2018.  

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said ending the death penalty has followed a regional pattern. Pennsylvania, which has not executed anyone since 1999, is the only Northeast state to retain capital punishment, and East Coast states down to North Carolina have banned it. California, Oregon and Washington have either ended capital punishment or placed moratoriums on executions. 

“The idea that a state that heavily used the death penalty, that was the capital of the Confederacy, and one in which the death penalty had long been considered one of the tools of racial oppression, that it would abolish the death penalty is extremely significant,” Dunham said regarding Virginia’s recent shift. 

“It may well be that we have just crossed the threshold toward broader death penalty abolition in the American south,” he said. 


Shifting Views 

Polling by Gallup shows the death penalty continues to enjoy public support in the U.S., although significantly less than it used to. A survey in September and October of last year found 55% of Americans favor capital punishment and 43% oppose it. A 2001 survey by Gallup showed 68% of respondents supported the death penalty and 26% opposed it.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director and general counsel at Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which defends capital punishment laws, said he was disappointed by the push to end capital punishment and believed it was partly due to “fatigue” at how drawn out the death penalty process is. 

“The other side has been so successful in obstructing executions that a lot of people who otherwise support it are not placing the same priority they did on it, since in many places it is not being so enforced,” he said. 

For Scheidegger, the fundamental arguments for supporting the death penalty are still sound: For depraved murderers, nothing less than death is a sufficient punishment, and the death penalty reduces violent crimes by deterring would-be violent criminals, he said.  

Scheidegger also attributed the attractiveness of death penalty abolition to low crime rates. Support for the death penalty tends to rise and fall with the crime rate, he said. Murders increased 30% in nearly three dozen cities over the last year, and a sustained increase in violent crime could swing public opinion against ending the death penalty. 

Vaillancourt Murphy countered the U.S. “is a global outlier in its retention of the death penalty, and that culture of retribution and punishment runs deep in our nation’s veins.”

“We still have a lot of work to do to educate our neighbors — including Catholics — on the brokenness of the death penalty, and the ways in which it violates the sanctity of life,” she said.

In Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli Tutti, he wrote, “Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.”

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has expressed support for ending the death penalty on several occasions. After California imposed a moratorium on executions, the archbishop said, “the most important reasons for ending the death penalty are moral. Every human life is precious and sacred in the eyes of God and every person has a dignity that comes from God.”

He added, “The death penalty violates the condemned person’s dignity and deprives that person of the chance to change his or her heart and be rehabilitated through the mercy of God.”


State Efforts at Repeal

President Biden pledged to end the death penalty federally and offer incentives for states to follow his lead. Dunham said the administration has several options available to it to change federal practices but discounted the possibility of passing legislation given the polarized makeup of Congress. 

“I think we’ll probably see at some point movement on the bills introduced in the House and Senate to abolish the death penalty, but unless there’s a partnership there its prospects of success are not very good,” he said. 

Legislators in 15 states introduced bills to abolish the death penalty this year, however. And while death penalty abolitionists hope that Virginia creates a ripple effect in the South, more expectations have been pinned on Midwest and Western states. Ohio this year banned the death penalty for people suffering from severe mental illness at the time of their offense, and bipartisan legislation introduced in the state senate March 2 would eliminate it entirely. 

State Sen. Stephen Huffman, R-Tipp City, a practicing physician and pro-life Catholic who is the primary Republican sponsor of the legislation, said he was “optimistic” about passing the bill, which has its first hearing before a committee March 31. 

There are some signals for its success. Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine, who helped write the state’s current execution law in 1981, said in an Associated Press interview he was “much more skeptical” about the deterrent effect of the death penalty. The state has also had a de facto moratorium on executions because of the difficulty of obtaining lethal injection drugs. 

A recent poll commissioned by ACLU of Ohio and Ohioans to Stop Executions found that 59% of respondents in the state supported replacing death penalty sentences with life in prison without parole, and majorities of both Democrats and Republicans supported ending the death penalty. 

The survey represents a significant swing in public opinion since 2014, when a Quinnipiac University poll found 68% of Ohio residents supported capital punishment. 


Change of Heart

Sen. Huffman said his position on the death penalty gradually changed from default “conservative Republican” support for it to recognizing that his own pro-life commitments meant he could not support executions.  

“This isn’t an innocent life, but it’s life. There’s only one thing that should determine who lives, and that’s God,” he said. 

The Ohio state senator said the increased expense of capital trials, the lack of closure for families who have to repeatedly testify, and the exonerations of death row inmates have also persuaded him to support the end of the death penalty. Since 1989, eight death row inmates in Ohio have been exonerated of their crimes. 

“It’s not a perfect system and there’s a good chance of putting innocent people to death,” he said. 

In Wyoming, legislation to end the death penalty failed March 18 in the state’s senate by a vote of 19-11. Deacon Mike Leman, legislative liaison for the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming, told the Register legislative support for abolishing the death penalty has been growing as a younger generation of Republican politicians have highlighted fiscal conservatism and concerns over government power in their attempt to end the death penalty. 

While the death penalty polls well among Wyoming residents, “once people start to think about it you start to see that support dry up,” he said. Deacon Leman said persuading voters to abandon the death penalty, rather than just relying on legislative action, is critical, pointing to Nebraska, which passed legislation to end the death penalty in 2015 before a voter referendum reinstated it the following year. 

“It’s a life issue like abortion,” he said. “And we have to win the hearts and minds of people.”

 Nicholas Wolfram Smith is a Register correspondent.