Image Courtesy of UPI.com
By Anna Harvey
On Wednesday March 24, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia signed into law a bill effectively repealing the death penalty in Virginia. The Virginia Senate passed the bill on February 4, voting 21-17; with two Republicans joining Democrats in voting for abolition. Prior to the vote, the Wason Center for Civic Leadership revealed that 56% of Virginians supported the repeal of the death penalty.
While the last death row execution in Virginia occurred over a century ago on April 9, 1909, in which the accused was executed by hanging, in its 300+ years of enforcing capital punishment Virginia has executed a higher number of prisoners on death row than any other state in the nation. The last execution in Virginia occurred in July 2017, and prior “famous” Virginia death penalty cases include the “DC sniper,” several of whose trials were held in Virginia. Another famous Virginia capital punishment case includes the Supreme Court case Atkins v. Virginia, where it was decided that executing “mentally retarded” defendants is unconstitutional.
The abolition of the death penalty in Virginia also comes with the state’s ongoing conversations concerning the state’s failures in its treatment of Black Virginians, from the institution of slavery, to the implementating of Jim Crow laws, to a lack of addressing and reconciling violence and discrimination enacted against Black Virginians. In examining discrimination and racism inherent to the criminal justice system in Virginia, poor defendants historically were less likely to receive adequate counsel, and Black defendants were often discriminated against through actions of both prosecutors and district attorneys, such as striking black jurors and choosing a white-only jury.
In spite of this abolition, however, many Virginians still feel as though the state government has not adequately addressed racism inherent within the institution. Over the course of his governorship, Gov. Northam has drawn fire for the exposure of an old photo from when he attended the Virginia Military Institute. Gov. Northam confessed that he was either one of two subjects in the photo, one of whom is dressed in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan robe. While the Governor promised in a video that he would do better, many Virginians still view Northam as contradictory in his attempts to combat racism in Virginia, most notably with addressing allegations of racism within his own alma mater.
For many Virginia pro-life groups and death penalty abolition groups, however, this announcement is a victorious culmination of many years of work. In the Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty’s regular newsletter announcing the abolition of the death penalty, Executive Director Michael Stone recounted: “Thirty years ago the founders of what came to be known as VADP took the first steps toward ending state-sponsored killing. Our journey is now almost over, thanks to all of you and many others who supported us in every way over these decades.”
Similarly, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development said, “I welcome Virginia’s repeal of the death penalty as a bold step towards a culture of life. Virginia will become the twenty-third state to abolish the death penalty, and I urge all other states and the federal government to do the same.”
To many pro-life groups, such as death penalty abolition groups, the pro-life movement, and certain elected officials, this is just the continuation of a longer battle. The abolition of the death penalty not only serves as a victory for many but also will spark more conversations on the value of life and on race in the decades to come.