Virginia should lead change by ending executions and allowing same-sex marriage

Petula Dvorak
Columnist January 23

Whoa, Virginia. You’re totally confusing us here.

Rainbow flags and Old Sparky in the same week?

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

When news broke Thursday that Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring will fight the state’s ban on same-sex marriage — after he voted for it eight years ago — it seemed that the time had come to start calling the commonwealth New Dominion.

But before you think that Virginia is going all squishy liberal, the state House of Delegates (remember, those guys who proposed that whole vaginal probe thing) overwhelmingly passed a bill to make the electric chair the default method of execution if lethal injection is not available. Right now, electrocution is used only if a Death Row inmate requests it.

Turns out that the European manufacturers of the drugs used in lethal injections won’t sell them to executioners anymore, so it’s becoming harder for states to euthanize people. In most business scenarios, when you’re cut off, it means you’re doing something pretty bad.

But Virginia’s leaders didn’t use the moment as an opportunity to look back on the cases of 16 men in Virginia who have been exonerated by the Innocence Project — including Earl Washington Jr., who came within days of being executed for a murder and rape he did not commit — and rethink the state’s dedication to executions.

Instead, they want to go all 1800s on us with the electric chair, ensuring that’s how the 10 people on Death Row will die.

In many ways, Virginia offers a fascinating window on American culture right now. We’re undergoing swift change in some areas, but in other ways we remain pretty draconian.

And when you look at how changes, or the lack of them, are playing out across the country — from marriage equality to minimum wage laws to family leave policies — we Americans come off as pretty schizophrenic in our values.

For example, 33 states, including Virginia, still ban same-sex marriage, while the rest have moved to legalize it.

So Herring’s plan to fight the law is huge news. Legalizing same-sex marriage would put Virginia on the right side of history — unlike in the battle for interracial marriage. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the arrest of Mildred and Richard Loving by Virginia authorities for violating state laws, clearing the legal path to marriage for interracial couples across the country. This time, the commonwealth has a chance to do it right from the start.

And the change in Virginia’s same-sex equality laws could be what spurs change across the rest of the country.

This is Virginia’s new role in America, apparently. During the last two presidential elections, the pundit chatter was all about Virginia becoming one of the hot, new swing states.

From 1968 to 2008, Virginians had steadfastly voted for Republicans. But during the past two national elections, the increasingly diverse state has shifted Democratic and become a bellwether state by voting for President Obama.

Herring said he changed his mind on rights for same-sex couples because the world around him — including his kids — helped him evolve.

“I had voted against marriage equality eight years ago, back in 2006, even though at the time I was speaking out against discrimination and ways to end discrimination, and I was wrong for not applying it to marriage,” Herring told NPR’s “Morning Edition” on Thursday. “I saw very soon after how that hurt a lot of people, and it was very painful for a lot of people.”

Herring’s thoughtful evolution brings us back to Old Sparky.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the state’s delegation rethink its status as one of 32 states that still support the death penalty?

Recently, legislators have been conflicted about the practice, anyway. They tried to expand capital punishment to include accomplices four years ago, but that bill was shut down by the Senate Courts of Justice committee after a state executioner, Jerry Givens, testified about the difficulty of carrying out 62 executions over the course of 25 years.

“The people who pass these bills, they don’t have to do it,” he said afterward. “The people who do the executions, they’re the ones who suffer through it.”

Keep listening, Virginia. Keep showing the rest of the country how to gracefully grow into change.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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