Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation to end the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia is the first southern state to end the death penalty and holds the dubious distinction of being the second highest state of executions with 1400 lives taken since the Colonies. The death penalty has its roots in slavery, slave patrols, lynching and Jim Crow. The good news is that Virginia becomes the 23rd state to end the death penalty. The bad news is that 27 other states still have the death penalty.
Ironically, lynching was the precursor to the death penalty. Lynching events decreased as capital punishment took its place in the South. Eight in ten executions since 1976 have occurred in the South. And eight in ten lynching incidents from 1889 to 1918 were carried out in the South. Executions in Virigna were carried out by hanging for the first 300 years until 1908.
The earliest form of the death penalty was the slave patrols. The earliest form of policing Black people was conducted by slave patrols known as “slave catchers” beginning in 1704 and continuing until 1865. Slave catchers were comprised of organized law enforcement officers, whose sole job was to search for, apprehend, and beat runaway or kill enslaved Black people. The penalty of death was deemed permissible, as enslaved Black people were legally defined as chattel—and not human.
It is difficult to conceive that the death penalty is still in existence today on 27 states – although it is on hold in three states. As the death penalty has its start in slavery, it is still used against Black people. 44 percent of all people on death row since 1976 are Black. Many people on death row in other states are exonerated. Conservative figures show that for every twenty-five persons on death row, one person is innocent. However, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) estimates that 185 people have been exonerated and released from death row since 1973. The “EJI” statistics show that for every nine persons on death row that one person has been exonerated According to the Innocence Project, eighteen people in eleven states have been exonerated by DNA who were serving time on death row—for crimes they did not commit. In other cases, there has been a strong likelihood of innocence after execution but without DNA evidence as proof. In death penalty cases, the likely reasons for exonerations are perjury of witnesses, false accusations, police misconduct and prosecutorial misconduct. According to EJI, official misconduct is much higher if the defendant is a Black person.
For those persons in Virginia on death row, they will likely be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole—many of whom are poor and Black. There is still much work to be done to abolish the death penalty in all 50 states.
Debbie Hines, Photo Courtesy of Tom O’Connor. Debbie is a former Baltimore prosecutor and former Assistant Attorney General for Maryland.