Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is expected to sign two bills passed Monday by the state General Assembly to abolish Virginia’s death penalty. It is a cause for celebration for human rights advocates for a battle won but the victory is far from over in 27 states where the death penalty remains intact.
The death penalty in the U.S. served as the ultimate punishment for many crimes dating back to the 1600s. The Death Penalty Information Center listed offenses such as “striking one’s mother or father or denying the “true God” as crimes punishable by death. Of course, more heinous crimes led men and women of every race and ethnicity to death row over the past four centuries. Still, today investigations and research show that many on death are facing capital punishment for crimes they did not commit.
The killing of innocent people and flaws in the judicial system led the Virginia legislature to step back from its notorious history as the state that has executed more people than any other state in the U.S. Soon, Virginia will become the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty. Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013 while D.C. abolished capital punishment in 1981.
However, that leaves 27 states in which 2,553 inmates remain on death row, including two men on Virginia’s death row. Anthony Juniper was sentenced to death in 2004 for slaying his ex-girlfriend, two of her children and her brother. Thomas Porter was sentenced for killing a Norfolk police officer in 2005. Both men are Black, as are 41 percent of all death row inmates.
White men account for most prisoners on death row; however, Black men often receive a death sentence for lesser crimes than those committed by white men. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in 96 percent of states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty, there remains a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination resulting in Black men being disproportionately sentenced to death.
Virginia has come a long way from its racist past and some might say it still has a long way to go.
The “love” Virginia is known for should spread South and West to crumble other states’ reliance on a punishment proven not to be a deterrent to murder. It is time to end the barbaric practice of killing people for killing people. If we say we value life, the death penalty proves otherwise. Abolish the death penalty now.