No, It's Morally Indefensible
Our nation appears to be in the midst of a much-welcomed soul searching regarding the use of capital punishment. We only wish Virginia would take note.
Perhaps our commonwealth's 400th anniversary will provide a moment to reflect -- not only on our storied contributions to this nation, but also on the fact that, since Jamestown, our state has executed nearly 1,300 people, the most of any state; and that since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, our state has executed 98 individuals, second only to Texas.
We need look no farther than our neighbors for signs of growing skepticism about capital punishment.
To our north, a committee recently came within one vote of sending legislation to repeal the death penalty to the floor of the Maryland Senate.
To our south, executions are on hold in North Carolina -- one of 11 states in which capital punishment recently has been suspended.
Here in Virginia, some leaders seem intent on the exact opposite. Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly enacted legislative provisions that sought to expand the state's death penalty statute. Commendably, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) vetoed each of those provisions. Regrettably, the legislature overrode some of those vetoes.
We readily acknowledge the need for our criminal justice system to ensure that one who has been convicted of a heinous crime be rendered incapable of repeating it. At the same time, we believe the death penalty must be viewed as a "last resort," to be used only when -- in the words of Pope John Paul II -- "it would not be possible otherwise to defend society."
No matter how horrendous the crime, if a society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so.
With Virginia's life-without-parole sentence and modern incarceration system, that protection is provided. The life-sentence alternative is unique in its ability to protect state residents while upholding the dignity of every person, even the one convicted of a brutal crime. Accordingly, we are convinced that -- in our time and place -- the death penalty is unnecessary and inappropriate, and that death sentences should no longer be imposed or carried out in Virginia. Whenever an execution is scheduled in Virginia, we have called for a commutation of the death sentence to life without the possibility of parole.
To those who do not share our conviction, we would hope to agree on this much: Given Virginia's unusually frequent recourse to the death penalty, the last thing needed is to widen its scope.
On April 4, this point seems to have resonated with the 14 members of the Virginia Senate who were responsible for upholding the governor's veto of the most far-reaching death penalty expansion to reach his desk. This action is a small step in the right direction. May it lead our commonwealth on the road to more sober reflection on its past use of capital punishment and to a new direction for its future.