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Virginia’s repeal of capital punishment in 2021 is arguably the most momentous abolitionist event since 1972, when the United States Supreme Court invalidated capital punishment statutes nationwide. In part, Virginia’s repeal is momentous because it marks the first time a Southern state abolished the death penalty. In part, it is momentous because even among Southern states, Virginia was exceptional in its zeal for capital punishment. No state executed faster once a death sentence was handed down. And no state was more successful in defending death sentences, allowing Virginia to convert death sentences into executions at a higher rate than any other state in the Union. Sure, Texas holds the record for the most executions in the modern era of capital punishment. But Virginia was next in line with the second most executions in the modern era, and it holds the record for the most executions in the history of the United States, period.6 Granted, Virginia had been executing people for over 400 years, so it had a head start. But that just makes its repeal of the death penalty all the more remarkable. How did Virginia go from all-in on the death penalty to abolition?
* Corinna Barrett Lain
** Douglas A. Ramseur
* S.D. Roberts and Sandra Moore Professor of Law, University of Richmond School of Law
** Adjunct Professor of Law, University of Richmond School of Law, and owner of The Ram Law Firm, P.L.L.C., in Richmond, Virginia