Paul O’Shea is vice president of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Our commonwealth holds the dubious honor of being the first and most lethal executioner in the nation. Indeed, it was in the Jamestown Colony of 1608 that Captain George Kendall was shot for treason, the state’s first recorded execution. Since then, no other state — not Texas, not Oklahoma, not Florida — has inflicted the irreversible punishment on more of its citizens.
Lynchings, particularly in Virginia, were the linkage between vigilante justice and later racial violence. From 1865 to 1950, nearly 6,500 documented lynchings occurred in the United States. Seven in 10 victims were black.
The death penalty’s modern era began in 1976 when the Supreme Court restored the punishment after a four-year moratorium. Since then, 113 men and women have been executed in Virginia, and race frequently has been an important factor. Only four executions involved a white defendant killing a black person, all since 1997.
Defendants’ and victims’ skin colors play crucial and unacceptable roles in deciding who receives the death penalty in the United States.
While black people make up 13 percent of the population, they account for 42 percent of the 2,620 men and women on death row. Seventy-six percent of those executed since 1976 had white victims even though 50 percent of murder victims are white. Only 15 percent of executions since 1976 had a black victim
Progress toward Virginia death penalty reform has grown steadily in the past decade, as death sentences in Virginia are largely a relic of the past. The last death sentence in Virginia was handed down in 2011. The last execution took place in 2017. Currently, two black men are on death row. In each case, there are reasons to believe their sentences could be overturned by the courts because of significant trial errors.
Repeal is just over the horizon, while progress on reform appeared recently. In the 2020 legislative session, the Virginia Senate approved a bill to prohibit the execution of severely mentally ill prisoners by an overwhelming 32-to-7 bipartisan margin. The House of Delegates did not consider the bill, however.
In 1991, 13 advocates formed Virginians Against State Killing as a response to a survey that revealed that while citizens supported the death penalty, if given a choice, Virginia citizens they favored a sentence of life without parole and certain restrictions over capital punishment. The organization became Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty in 1994.
Today, Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty has more than 3,000 members representing a cross section of political and religious beliefs and affiliations. In addition to traditional allies such as Democrats and progressives, the issue has attracted large numbers of advocates who classify themselves as conservatives and libertarians. In 2021, Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty will commemorate its 30th anniversary, with the strong conviction that capital punishment will disappear from the state’s criminal code.
In this unique time of need for racial healing and restoration, ending the death penalty in Virginia will be judged as a small but significant step in reconciliation.