JARRATT — Virginia joined the growing ranks of 23 U.S. states, the first in the South, banning the death penalty when Gov. Ralph Northam signed a measure here Wednesday that passed the state legislature earlier this year into law. The effort culminates a 12-year effort of its primary initiator, Northern Virginia State Sen. Scott Surovell.
Virginia has exercised the death penalty for 400 years to more than 1,400 persons, more than any other state in the union. Surovell stated at the signing ceremony Wednesday that during his first year in office in 2010, the state legislature was overwhelmingly in favor of the death penalty, even protecting data concerning use of lethal injections as recently as 2014.
But the national public reaction to the high profile murder of George Floyd last summer helped to spur momentum against racial discrmination, and all the evidence has shown its role in the application of the death penalty.
Northam said, “Over our 400-year history, Virginia has executed more people than any other state. The death penalty system is fundamentally flawed — it is inequitable, ineffective, and it has no place in this Commonwealth or this country. Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death.”
He added, “Abolishing this inhumane practice is the moral thing to do. This is a truly historic day for Virginia, and I am deeply grateful to those who have fought tirelessly and for generations to put an end to capital punishment in our Commonwealth.”
“The (death penalty) remedy cannot apply to a society that values civil and human rights,” State Sen. Surovell said. He said Virginia’s new law “puts the state at the forefront of the fight for justice globally.”
A key in the reversal of fortune for the policy earlier this year came when State Sen. Dick Saslaw, whose district includes Falls Church, reversed his long-standing position to vote for the change.
According to an article in Wednesday’s Washington Post, Falls Church City activist Cindy Cunningham, head of the Virginia Progressive Legislation Alert Network (VPLAN) and member of the Falls Church City Democratic Committee, was a major player in the development.
According to the Post article by Greg Schneider, Cunningham was instrumental in persuading Saslaw. It reported that she “initially thought the solution was finding a more liberal Democrat to unseat Saslaw. Then Saslaw called her up, she said, and they became regular correspondents, with Cunningham emailing him articles about declining public support for the death penalty.”
Northam said he’d campaigned on removing the death penalty in 2017, as had his colleague Attorney General Mark Herring, to reverse the ugly history of Virginia which has seen an overwhelming majority of deaths imposed on black persons.
As one example, since 1908 when the electric chair was instituted, 808 white men were found guilty of rape, but none were executed.
On the other hand, 45 Black men have been executed for the same crime.
In 1901 and 1981, six times more Black people were executed by the state than white people.
It has also been shown that one in 10 cases have been reversed due to evidence that the sentence was improperly given. Executions of innocent persons at such a high rate “is a price far too high to pay for perpetuation of the death penalty,” Surovell said.
Earlier in the day, Northam visited the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt where executions are carried out in the commonwealth. He signed the bill into law there at 2:47 p.m.
Also on the signing podium was State Del. Ken Plum, a relentless advocate for the abolition of the death penalty since 1980.
Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union
(ACLU) of Virginia issued the following statement upon Northam’s signing of the new law:
“As I watched the governor sign a law ending the death penalty in Virginia, I thought of the centuries of executions carried out on behalf of Virginians. Our Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state under the guise of justice, but it is a racist, barbaric practice. And thankfully, it ends today.
“The death penalty has always been about race. Prior to a Supreme Court ruling in 1978, 90 percent of people who were executed in the commonwealth were Black. Even today, someone who commits murder is far more likely to get the death penalty if their victim was white, and less likely if the victim was Black. The disparate enforcement of the death penalty is one more way the criminal legal system has devalued Black lives, and ending the death penalty is a victory in the pursuit of racial justice.
“Virginia is the first state in the South to ban the death penalty, and it took many decades of hard work for us to get here. My predecessor, Kent Willis, advocated tirelessly for more than two decades on this issue, and alongside many organizations and individuals, the ACLU of Virginia staff and Board of Directors has worked continuously to influence lawmakers and change hearts and minds. Today’s historic move is a credit to courageous legislators like Frank Hargrove, Harvey Morgan, and Ken Plum, committed capital defense counsel, advocates like Jerry Givens and Marie Deans (often called the ‘courageous fool of death row’), and leaders from Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, and the Virginia Catholic Conference, among others.
“While the wheels of justice often turn slowly, we are grateful to be closing the chapter on this racist and inhumane practice and bringing our Commonwealth one step closer to being a place where all enjoy liberty and equality in equal measure.”
Attorney General Herring issued the below statement following Gov. Northam’s signing of the legislation repealing the death penalty in Virginia:
“For too long Virginia had the shameful distinction as one of the states that most frequently imposed the death penalty. Now we are showing a better, more just way forward as the first state in the south to do away with it. Ending this practice is just one step in our ongoing, crucial work to reform the Commonwealth’s criminal justice system to make it more fair, equal and just for all Virginians.”