Virginia: Reconciling with Racism by Ending the Death Penalty

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Photo by CFLJ via Flickr

In the coming days, we anticipate that Virginia lawmakers will put the finishing touches on a historic moment. With the signature of Gov. Ralph Northam on the bill passed by both houses of the state legislature last week, the Commonwealth will become the first former Confederate state to repeal its death penalty statute.

That’s not the only reason this achievement will be remarkable.

Virginia has executed more people than any other state in the country, having put 1,277 people to death from 1608 to 1962. In 1982, Virginia ended a 20-year moratorium on executions.

In whiplash fashion, Virginia began killing at a furious rate: an additional 113 executions since then, second only to Texas in that period.

For the last 20 years, the state has veered away from death sentences. Today, there are only two people on death row. This repeal will be the culmination of an amazing turnabout for a state that was once predisposed to the most vicious form of punishment, one with no proven public safety benefits.

Virginia will be the 11th state to abolish its death penalty since 2007 — a demarcation point for the modern abolition movement. I feel incredibly fortunate, over the past 16 years, to have worked in every one of those state efforts, to witness our nation, piece by piece, reject this broken relic of our justice system.

The death penalty has never been as unpopular as it is now.

That may help explain why the repeal in Virginia feels different.

No one dedicated to this movement would ever say that ending the death penalty is easy. Each campaign has its particular challenges, its setbacks and disappointments. Sometimes it takes several attempts to get a bill through a difficult legislative committee.

Other times, when a bill finally makes it through one chamber, the other chamber rejects it. Or both chambers approve a bill only to see the governor veto it, as in New Hampshire in 2018. It took another year of all-out effort to muster support for an override, as happened in the Granite State in 2019.

Every campaign is grueling in its own way.

I know the fiercely dedicated Virginians who have fought against the death penalty for years and can testify to the persistence that this kind of victory requires. But here’s the unusual part: Lawmakers hadn’t debated a bill to end the death penalty in more than a decade prior to 2020, when a senate committee chose to push a repeal bill to this year.

And now, with bipartisan support, Virginia is poised to rise above our most gruesome national practice.

Why Virginia and why now? The answers may lie in recent events that have shaken the country to its core.

Over the past year, countless Americans were reawakened to the terror of being murdered by police that Black communities face daily, documented vividly and in details that couldn’t be ignored. When many millions of people took to the streets to protest this past summer to demand some form of accountability, they were often met with violent suppression by those same police.

The institutional violence continued with a spree of vicious executions by the last presidential administration. After going more than 16 years without an execution, the federal government killed 13 people in a matter of months. More than half were people of color.

These aren’t isolated events. They are a sweeping manifestation of our legacy of racism and the violence it has always created. More and more, Americans are recognizing executions as the natural extension of the lynchings that were so common beginning in slavery and continued to thrive through Reconstruction and into Jim Crow.

Virginia’s history makes that plainly true.

The Virginia Interfaith Center, a stalwart leader in the Commonwealth’s death penalty repeal efforts alongside Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penaltydocumented that astonishing history. From 1800-1900, the state executed 538 Black people against just 45 white people. Of the 113 people executed since 1982, 46% were Black. Both men on death row today are Black.

For many Virginia lawmakers, including Gov. Ralph Northam, the state’s history coupled with our nation’s most recent incarnations of undisguised racism are too much. They have seen and learned all that is needed to stand on the right side of justice.

Virginia is taking action on our collective horror and will become an example for a nation that needs to reconcile with its past. Virginia’s deep-rooted racism isn’t an aberration, though. It can be found throughout the nation in every layer of our justice system — especially in our reliance on the death penalty.

sarah craft

Sarah Craft

Yes, Virginia’s death penalty repeal will be remarkable, but it cannot stand alone.

Other states must begin their own reckoning, right now. While the present-day circumstances make Virginia’s achievement feel different, we all share in the legacy that makes it essential.

Sarah Craft is the program director of Equal Justice USA’s program to end the death penalty. For more than 16 years she has worked with EJUSA’s state partners all over the country to develop winning strategies for their campaigns.

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