Op-EdOpinion

DESCANO: Justice for All Means Dismantling the Federal Death Penalty, Commuting Death Row Sentences

After enduring four years of white nationalism in the White House, it was a refreshing shift to see President Biden announce a series of executive orders in his first week in office addressing systemic racism. The Biden Administration’s commitments to drop federal private prison contracts, promote fair housing practices at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and combat the wave of xenophobia aimed at Asian Americans during the pandemic constitute a welcomed first step in confronting racism. However, if President Biden is truly intent on leading America toward a reckoning with its original sin, he should use every tool at his administration’s disposal to dismantle the federal death penalty.

America’s death penalty is among the most egregiously racist institutions – in both its origin and application – to persist in a criminal justice system defined by inequity. In 19th century Virginia, state law only provided for the execution of white people for first-degree murder, while enslaved people could be executed for less serious alleged offenses. Although the explicit racial distinction disappeared from the code during the 20th century, these disparities persisted.

Per the Death Penalty Information Center, 185 Black Virginians and 46 white Virginians were executed for murder between 1900 and 1969. A total of 73 Black Virginians were executed for crimes like rape, attempted rape, or armed robbery. No white Virginians were executed for such crimes in that timespan. This racist application of the death penalty continues to this day and is not unique to Virginia. Nationally, 42 percent of individuals on death row are Black, as are 34% of those executed – despite Black Americans constituting 13 percent of our population.

What’s more, not only is the death penalty racist but it’s also woefully ineffective at preventing crime. In fact, the Brennan Center found that the average homicide rate in states without the death penalty is lower than that of states with the death penalty.

Thankfully, the movement to abolish the death penalty has gained considerable momentum in recent years. Ten states have outlawed the death penalty since 2004 and a growing number of local prosecutors are refusing to seek it, a pledge I have honored since taking office last year. Even in Virginia, the first colony to stage an execution and the state that has executed the most individuals in our nation’s history, both chambers of the General Assembly passed abolition bills last week – nearly ensuring that the Commonwealth will be the first southern state to strike the death penalty from its books. Further, in the initial days of the Biden Administration I was proud to join over 100 criminal justice leaders on two letters to the President urging him to commute the sentences of those on federal death row and take aggressive action to end the federal death penalty.

I have witnessed personally the emotions associated with retiring the death penalty. Shortly after taking office, a federal court ordered that a man who pled guilty to brutally murdering a Fairfax County woman and was sentenced to death under my predecessor be resentenced. I stood by my pledge to the community not to seek the death penalty. The result: the man was sentenced to life without parole.

My predecessor proclaimed that it was “a bad time for victims, justice and public safety;” The comments sections in coverage quickly turned vile; And nearly one year later I still get loaded questions about this case at town halls.

Of course, I understand why this case, and cases like it, would evoke such strong emotions. But at the end of the day, despite the associated emotions, this was a straightforward decision. The bottom line is that we should not abide a justice system that exacts vengeance through the application of a racist and ineffective mode of punishment. We should instead build a system that recognizes our nation’s legacy of systemic racism and is grounded in fact-based interventions proven to enhance community safety.

I hope that moving aggressively to end the federal death penalty is a similarly straightforward call for our new president. The federal killing spree of the Trump Administration in its waning days, during which 13 people were executed in six months, underscores the necessity of taking every conceivable step to permanently dismantle the machinery of the federal death penalty. By commuting all federal death row sentences, urging the Department of Justice to instruct federal prosecutors not to seek the death penalty, and supporting legislation to abolish capital punishment, President Biden can seize on the historic racial awakening of the past year to begin building a more fair, equitable, and effective criminal justice system.

We in Fairfax County and other local prosecutors across the country committed to not seeking the death penalty – along with states like Virginia that are moving toward abolition – have demonstrated the momentum behind the movement to abolish this racist and ineffective practice. The time is now for the federal government to act.

Steve Descano serves as the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Fairfax City and Fairfax County, Virginia.

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