For The Record

Corinna Lain, S.D. Roberts & Sandra Moore Professor of Law, weighs in on Virginia’s decision to repeal the death penalty.

How momentous was it for Virginia to repeal the death penalty?
In my mind, it is the most significant death penalty development since 1972, when the Supreme Court invalidated capital punishment statutes across the country for a time.

In part, Virginia’s repeal is momentous because it marks the first time a Southern state has abolished the death penalty. And in part, it’s momentous because even among Southern states, Virginia was exceptionally committed to executions. No state has executed more people than Virginia. No state executed faster once a death sentence was handed down, and no state matched Virginia’s success in defending its death sentences, which enabled it to convert death sentences into executions at a higher rate than any other state in the union. That’s a big deal.

Why did the legislation finally pass?
The tipping point was the Democrats’ control of the state legislature and governorship, but a number of developments had been quietly laying the groundwork for decades.

Advocacy groups worked tirelessly on public information campaigns. Family members of victims became voices against the death penalty. Virginia had adopted the punishment of life without parole, so we no longer needed the death penalty to keep people safe. And thanks to dedicated capital defenders, Virginia had not seen a new death sentence in a decade. By 2021, Virginia had only two people on death row. The death penalty in Virginia was pretty much dying out on its own.

You’re writing a book about lethal injection. Tell us about it.
I started with a question: Why can’t we get lethal injection right? We put pets down humanely every day, and we cut people open on operating tables without them feeling a thing. If we can use drugs to alleviate pain and ease the dying process outside the execution context, why is it so hard to do that here?

The answer turned out to be a book, and it boils down to the fact that we have certain assumptions about lethal injection — it’s backed by science, for example, and it uses medical professionals who know what they’re doing — and none of those assumptions are true. It’s been a fascinating project.

What do you think the future holds for capital punishment?
I’m not so good at predictions. I never would have predicted that Virginia would repeal the death penalty in 2021 even five years ago. I can tell you the track we’re on now, and it is headed toward abolition, slowly but surely, state by state. Of course, it just takes something like a terrorist attack to bring it back, so it can turn in an instant. But if repeal happened in Virginia, it can happen anywhere. And everywhere.