Tim Kaine, a Democrat, represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate and was governor of Virginia from 2006 to 2010.
I met my wife, Anne, a native Virginian, in law school in the early 1980s. Idealistic youngsters, we grappled with whether to live in Richmond or my hometown of Kansas City. A key consideration in our choice of Virginia was the Biblical phrase “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” There seemed to be so much work to be done here.
As Susan Dunn explains in her book “Dominion of Memories,” Virginia was America’s wealthiest and most populous state until the late 1820s and the producer of a huge percentage of its leaders into the 1840s. But Virginia lost influence toward the end of America’s first century, largely because of its choice to cling to the institution of American slavery it had helped create.
When I arrived in Virginia in 1984 to work as a civil rights lawyer, evidence abounded how much work needed doing. And one of the key struggles was Virginia’s overuse of the death penalty.
Virginia is the death penalty capital of the United States. Beginning with the first execution under a colonial government in 1608, we have executed 1,390 people, more than any other state. Following the Supreme Court’s decision restoring the death penalty in 1976, Virginia has executed more people than any state except Texas. And the painful history exposes the fundamental racism of capital punishment.
In the 19th century, Virginia executed 513 Black people and only 41 Whites. Before the Civil War, the criminal code made certain crimes capital offenses for Black residents that were noncapital offenses for White people. And even after the Civil War, when crimes such as rape were technically capital offenses for everyone, the ultimate punishment was used only against Black people. Fifty-six people were executed for rape or attempted rape in Virginia between 1908 and 1965 — all were Black.
As I began my legal career, I represented death-row inmates on a pro bono basis. One prisoner was executed in 1987; we shared his last meal a few minutes before the state electrocuted him. I represented another executed in 1996, walking him into the death chamber and holding his hand while he was strapped to a table for the state to kill him by lethal injection. These searing experiences, face-to-face with the humanity of my clients, made me pray for the day when Virginia would discard this brutal institution.
Early in my political career, a campaign consultant looked at the cases I had worked on and said, “You clearly never planned on running for office.” And my lifelong opposition to the death penalty became the key political weapon against me in the 2005 governor’s race, with ads featuring victims’ suffering families and claims I wouldn’t even execute Hitler. My victory despite these attacks suggested a softening of the public’s position on the death penalty.
As governor I kept my word to Virginians that I would follow the law by allowing numerous executions to go forward. The days those sentences were carried out were among the worst of my life. But I vetoed many bills expanding the death penalty and helped implement changes to professionalize and better compensate criminal defense attorneys. The combination of shifting popular attitudes and a commitment to high-quality defense teams had essentially halted new death sentences. The last capital conviction in Virginia was 10 years ago, and that case was reversed on appeal.
Anne and I have seen amazing progress in Virginia during our 37 years in Richmond. The election of L. Douglas Wilder, the grandson of enslaved people, as America’s first African American governor, the state’s solid support in electing Barack Obama president, the youth-generated activism leading to the removal of Confederate statues around the Commonwealth — these developments were unimaginable in 1984. I believe Virginia’s soon-to-be-finalized decision to abandon the death penalty — thanks to great leadership by advocates, bipartisan legislators, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and everyday citizens — stands as a singular achievement marking a repudiation of racism and a commitment to justice.
The harvest is still plentiful in Virginia and across our nation. Twenty-seven other states and the federal government still have the death penalty on the books, though a dozen of those states haven’t executed anyone in more than a decade. I am a co-sponsor of legislation to end the federal death penalty that, for the first time, has real momentum behind it. Activists are speaking out against the brutal institution in every state where it persists, and racial disparities in its use continue.
Thankfully, the repeal of the death penalty by its leading practitioner gives hope that work for justice is not in vain. Virginia’s progress shows that it is possible for all.