African-American pastors join effort to abolish death penalty

George Copeland Jr. | 1/14/2021, 6 p.m.
In 1608, Virginia became the first jurisdiction in America to execute someone under the death penalty. In the centuries since, …

In 1608, Virginia became the first jurisdiction in America to execute someone under the death penalty. In the centuries since, Virginia has gone on to execute around 1,400 people, more than any other state. Now, state faith leaders and justice advocates are working to ensure it never happens again.

African-American faith leaders combined their voices for calls to state lawmakers to abolish the death penalty in Virginia. During a virtual press conference Jan. 7 organized by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, clergy members criticized the practice’s long and ugly history in the United States.

“The history of capital punishment finds its roots in slavery, lynching and Jim Crow,” said Dr. LaKeisha Cook, justice reform organizer for VICPP. “Capital punishment is a racial justice issue, and it is beyond time for us to address this historical sin.”

Dr. Cook and other speakers drew parallels between the racial animus that led domestic terrorists to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 following the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, and the roots of executions in the United States generally and Virginia specifically.

According to research by the Death Penalty Information Center, the years before the Civil War saw Virginia and other Southern states use laws that heavily skewed penalties depending on race. By 1848, enslaved people were executed for non-homicide offenses while Caucasians would face death only for first degree murder convictions.

For 300 years in Virginia, executions were done through public hanging, moving in 1908 to private executions by electrocution. Throughout the 20th century, the statistics continue to show that only the crime of murder could lead to the execution of a white person in Virginia, while African-Americans were sentenced to death for murder, rape, attempted rape and attempted robbery. During that period, Virginia had executed roughly three times as many African-American offenders as it had white offenders. While no one has been sentenced to death in Virginia since 2011, the state remains one of 28 where the death penalty is still legal.

“The shift from lynchings to executions or electrocution continues to erode the fabric of our society today,” said Rev. Duane Hardy, co-chair of the Social Justice Committee of the Henrico Ministers’ Conference and senior pastor of Seven Pines Baptist Church in Sandston. “This punishment is a visible and constant reminder of how things have not changed.”

As the Virginia General Assembly gets underway this week, death penalty abolition advocates have made a bill sponsored by Sens. Scott Surovell of Fairfax and Bill Stanley of Henry County a focus for their efforts. Delegate Lee Carter of Manassas also has introduced a bill that seeks to end the death penalty.

Bills introduced by Sen. Surovell and Delegate Carter during the 2020 session to abolish the death penalty both died in committee.

To raise public awareness, pastors and churches are planning socially distanced prayer vigils across the state at noon Friday, Jan. 22, with simultaneous events planned in Richmond, Danville, Roanoke, Alexandria and Hampton Roads.

Registration for the vigils is available at www.tinyurl.com/vicppdeathpenalty.