Two Virginia Prosecutors Renounce State’s ‘Death Machine’

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We are Commonwealth’s Attorneys, criminal prosecutors who have sworn an oath to do justice for the people of Virginia. Our sacred trust is to keep people safe, to do justice for all, and to ensure that the people who commit crimes receive fair and just punishment.

We are responsible for reflecting the values of our community and for recognizing the self-evident truth that all people, from the most righteous to the most depraved, are our brothers and sisters.

gregory underwood

Gregory D. Underwood

To do justice, the people of Virginia have entrusted us with the ultimate power: to demand that, for the most serious of crimes, the Commonwealth put people to death. Some people refer to this death-dealing by a polite, Latinate euphemism: capital punishment.

Let us no longer sanitize this violence.

We call capital punishment what it is: the state-sanctioned, premeditated homicide of its own people. This premeditated homicide is immoral and debases us all.

We renounce the death penalty, and we call on our legislators to strike this abhorrent power from our statutes and to shut down Virginia’s death machine.

It is time to stop killing our own in the name of so-called justice.

Twenty-two of our sister states have shut down their death chambers, and yet in modern times, Virginia has been particularly ready to kill. Since the reinstatement of the modern death-penalty scheme in 1976, Virginia has killed 113 people by electrocution and poisoning, more than any state but Texas.

Shutting down our death chamber would be particularly fitting, since Virginia, as the Mother of States, in 1608 hosted the first execution in the English colonies, a year after settlers landed in Jamestown and a year before the first enslaved Africans landed at Old Point Comfort.

James Hingeley

James Hingeley

We take this stand at a particularly important time, because in some quarters the death machine has sped up. Amid the grim march of loss in 2020—from war, murder, addiction, mishap, despair and the incomprehensibly lethal scourge of COVID-19—17 deaths largely escaped notice: the 17 men who, in a sick pantomime of medical treatment, were wheeled to their deaths and intravenously poisoned in the name of public safety.

Of those 17 men, ten died at the hands of the United States government which, following a pause of 17 years, has engaged in an orgy of executions unprecedented since the Second World War.

The death penalty may have made some sense in 1608, when it would have been impossible to imprison someone securely for life. It may have even seemed socially beneficial in the same way that leeches, bleeding and doses of mercury were considered medically beneficial.

Those days have passed; the death penalty does nothing to keep us safe, and it degrades us just as the crimes of the executed depraved them and devastated their victims.

Proponents of execution argue that the threat of death deters people from committing capital crimes. We see no evidence to support that argument. Almost without exception, the people whom we prosecute are not even aware what penalty their crimes carry, let alone what blurry line separates life from death.

Killing in the name of killing carries no deterrent value.

Proponents of execution make emotional arguments about the heinousness of the crimes for which people are sentenced to die. Those proponents are right about the facts, but they are wrong that the answer is death.

Our hearts break for the victims of violent crime. Our calling is to protect our fellow Virginians and to punish those who harm them. But all people sentenced to die—assuming that they are guilty, which many are not, as countless exonerations have shown—have committed abhorrent and vile crimes that cause us to despair about the inhumanity that people can inflict on each other.

But the cheerleaders for state-sponsored death cannot show that the crimes for which the state kills people are consistently more heinous or vile than the crimes for which people are sentenced to serve life in prison rather than to die.

In fact, the most striking characteristic of those who have been singled out to die is that they are damaged and broken people, are disproportionately African Americans, and their victims have been disproportionately white.

People have been sentenced to life in prison for equally vile crimes, and the system, regardless of the moral indefensibility of the death penalty, has done a poor job of ensuring that death comes for “the worst of the worst” alone.

Indeed, Samuel Little, who confessed to killing 93 vulnerable, forgotten women, most of them African American like him, was sentenced to life in prison and died without fanfare on December 30 in a California prison.

Finally, proponents of death argue that the only way to heal the social wound that a death-eligible crime inflicts is to kill the person who has killed: an “eye for an eye.” Again, we disagree, and we blame the sanitization of “capital punishment.”

Were we to gouge out the eyes of robbers, cut off the hands of thieves, break the legs of drunk drivers, or publicly whip shoplifters, our society from top to bottom would cry out in outrage, and they would be right.

Killing a person is worse than any of these barbaric sanctions. And, as we have heard countless victims say, nothing, not even killing, will bring their loved ones back.

The late Justice Lewis Powell Jr., a distinguished Virginian who voted to uphold the death penalty while on the United States Supreme Court, later told a biographer that he regretted his decision. The arbitrariness of how capital punishment is administered “brings discredit on the whole legal system,” he said in 1994, after his retirement from the court.

That same year, his former colleague, the late Justice Harry Blackmun, famously agreed, and wrote, “From this day forward, I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death.

We have taken a sacred oath to do justice for the people of our communities. We consider it our moral calling to protect our fellow people: to keep them safe and to keep them alive, and to offer comfort and justice when people commit crimes against their fellow human beings.

We grieve with the families of people who have been victimized by others, and we grieve with the families of victims who have died at the hands of other people.

But killing in the name of justice is not justice. It is killing. And to our representatives in Richmond, we call out:

Abolish the death penalty now.

James M. Hingeley is Commonwealth’s Attorney for the County of Albemarle, Virginia. Gregory D. Underwood is Commonwealth’s Attorney for the City of Norfolk, Virginia. They were among 11 Commonwealth’s Attorneys who recently signed a letter to the Virginia General Assembly expressing their support for abolishing the death penalty in the Commonwealth.

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