Good riddance to the death penalty

3/25/2021, 6 p.m.
Virginia has finally come down on the right side of the law with the abolition of the death penalty.

Virginia has finally come down on the right side of the law with the abolition of the death penalty.

With the stroke of a pen on Wednesday, Gov. Ralph S. Northam signed historic legislation abolishing the abhorrent and inequitable practice that has taken the lives of nearly 1,400 people in the Commonwealth since the 1600s.

Virginia holds the record for executing the most people of any state, and is second only to Texas when it comes to putting people to death in modern times. Since 1976 when the U.S. reinstated the death penalty, Virginia has executed 113 people.

We are encouraged by the sea change in Virginia that resulted in the General Assembly’s passage of legislation last month to end capital punishment.

We believe the change was spurred in large measure by the racial reckoning across this nation springing from the videotaped murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police officer. Mr. Floyd’s death brought to light undeniable proof of the racism that permeates our policing and criminal justice systems.

Virginia has been cited by the Death Penalty Information Center as an example of the historically racist and inequitable application of capital punishment. Robert Dunham, executive director of the center, called it a “historical extension of the racial hierarchy that produced slavery, lynching and Jim Crow.”

The death penalty was long used as a tool for controlling the Black population during the centuries of slavery and long after.

Analysis shows that even during modern times, a person arrested for a crime against a white person is three times as likely to face execution than if the victim is Black.

In Virginia, that also is the case, according to the center. The records also show that African-Americans have been executed for a broader range of crimes than Caucasians.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, no white person was sentenced to death for any offense other than murder between the start of the 20th century to the 1970s, while 73 African-Americans were executed for rape, attempted rape and armed robbery, none of which resulted in death.

In February 1951, Virginia executed five men on the same day. They were part of the case known as the Martinsville 7, in which seven African-American men were convicted and sentenced to death by all-white male juries for raping a white woman. Evidence now shows that most of the Martinsville 7, if not all, were innocent of the crime.

Public sentiment against the death penalty has grown as people have become more aware of the number of death row inmates who have been exonerated based on DNA and other evidence establishing their innocence. At least 174 inmates on death row have been exonerated nationally since the 1970s, according to one report.

With this shift in attitude, it is no surprise that Virginia now becomes the 23rd state — and the first in the South — to abolish the death penalty.

Gov. Northam, a physician who has called the practice racist, ineffective and inhumane, said in a media interview that he decided it was time to act after examining statistics showing that Black people in the Commonwealth are many times more likely to face the death penalty.

While the campaign to end the death penalty has been waged for years in Virginia, the legislation finally was able to pass this year because both chambers of the legislature are controlled by Democrats, and a Democratic governor signaled he would sign off on it.

Advocates felt the time was ripe now because Democratic control of the General Assembly and the governor’s office possibly could change after November’s elections.

We find it both frightening and fitting that Gov. Northam toured the death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt on Wednesday before signing the law ending capital punishment. The death chamber is a somber and ghoulish place even in photographs.

Two men, Anthony Juniper and Thomas Porter, both African-American, remained on Virginia’s death row. With Gov. Northam signing the bill into law on Wednesday, their death sentences are now converted into life in prison without parole.

Going forward, we must remain vigilant to ensure that members of the Virginia General Assembly don’t try to return the Commonwealth to its inhumane, inequitable and racist past.