US state of Virginia poised to ban death penalty
Lethal Injection (AFP)

Virginia is poised to become the 23rd US state and first southern state to ban the death penalty.

The Virginia Senate, by a 21-17 vote, passed a bill Wednesday on abolishing capital punishment.

It now awaits the approval of the Democratic-controlled House of Delegates.

Virginia's Democratic Governor Ralph Northam has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

"Today's Senate vote to abolish capital punishment is a landmark in the history of Virginia," said Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

"It is a repudiation of the long and violent history of 1,390 executions carried out by the Commonwealth since 1608," Stone told AFP.

"We expect the House of Delegates to affirm this vote and make Virginia the first southern state to abandon the death penalty."

Virginia has carried out more executions than any other state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Virginia housed the capital of the pro-slavery South during the 1861-65 US Civil War and was the site of lynchings of African-Americans.

"Lynchings were the precursor of the death penalty: legal violence instead of vigilante justice," Senator Mamie Locke said during Senate debate on the floor.

Arguing against the bill, Republican Senator Mark Obenshain said "there are clearly cases when the death penalty is an appropriate sanction."

"I don't believe that this bill is an appropriate response," he said.

The death penalty was reinstated by the US Supreme Court in 1976 but its use has declined over the past decade.

It has been abolished in 22 states and three states -- California, Oregon and Pennsylvania -- have observed a moratorium on its use.

State authorities carried out seven executions last year, with many states suspending the death penalty because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the same time, president Donald Trump's administration resumed federal executions and put 13 federal inmates to death between July 2020 and his departure from the White House in January.

Trump's successor, Joe Biden, has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty.