On February 3 the Virginia State Senate voted 21 to 17 in favour of abolishing Virginia’s death penalty. Two days later the House of Delegates voted 57-41 to back repealing capital punishment in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Governor Ralph Northam has also indicated he will back the decision, remarking that “The practice is fundamentally inequitable. It is inhumane. It is ineffective and we know that in some cases people on Death Row have been found innocent.”
Simple words, but hugely important to the ongoing debate on capital punishment in the US. For Virginia, once a solid bastion of the death penalty, to abolish it is both remarkable and historic. The ardently pro-death penalty States long nicknamed the ‘Death Belt’ are about to be reduced by one and others may follow. As of now less than thirty States have capital punishment and newly-elected President Joe Biden has pledged to abolish the Federal death penalty as well.
After the recent rash of Federal executions ordered by former President Donald Trump (more than the previous thirteen Presidents combined) Virginia’s decision to abolish its death penalty is heartening news for abolitionists world-wide. When the state finally ends its death penalty it will also prove hugely significant not only for America’s death penalty debate, but in American history as a whole.
The oldest State in the Union, Virginia has (unsurprisingly) executed more prisoners than any other State. When Captain George Kendall, accused of espionage, faced a firing squad at Jamestown in 1607 he was the first. Now it looks as though murderer William Morva (given a lethal injection in 2017 at the Greensville Correctional Center) will be Virginia’s 1390th and last prisoner to die in the Commonwealth’s death chambers.
Between Kendall and Morva lies a long, bloody and often racist history, something many present-day Virginians might prefer not to talk about and will be glad to see consigned to the historical record. Virginia is the first former Confederate State to abolish its death penalty. Since 1607 it had also executed more juveniles and women than any other State and its average wait between sentencing and execution (less than eight years) has been by far the shortest in the nation.
As recently as February 1951 Virginia executed the Martinsville Seven, all African-American, for alleged rape. Five died on the same day and the others only days later. Their guilt and the conduct of the investigation and trial has since been hotly disputed. Now only two men wait on Virginia’s Death Row and it is very unlikely that murderers Anthony Juniper and Thomas Porter will go the way of Captain Kendall and almost 2000 others. Virginia has not passed a death sentence since 2011 and it looks as though it will not pass another.
For so long one of the so-called ‘Death Belt’ states where executions were common and capital punishment widely supported, the disparity between the executions of white and non-white convicts had become rather an embarrassment. Since 1976 Virginia had been one of the most prolific States for executions rivalling even Texas for that dubious distinction.
During the 20th century when murder was far from the only capital crime seventy-three convicts died for rape, attempted rape or armed robbery that had not resulted in death. None of them were white. Of Virginia’s 377 20th century executions only seventy-nine were white, barely more than those of ono-whites for non-homicidal crimes. The other 296 were non-white.
Almost 2000 prisoners have faced Virginia’s firing squads, gallows, electric chair and lethal injection since the Commonwealth was founded. They were arrested, tried, convicted, lost their appeals, watched the clock tick down and died by the numbers. Ironically the man who executed many of them will not be here to celebrate the death penalty’s passing. Virginia’s former executioner Jerry Givens passed away last year without ever seeing the end of the punishment he once inflicted before turning abolitionist instead.
Former correctional officer Givens signed on at the old Virginia State Penitentiary (now long since demolished) in the 1970’s, becoming the state executioner in 1982. Until going to prison himself he electrocuted thirty-seven convicts and gave lethal injections to another twenty-five. By no means the first former executioner to oppose the death penalty he was certainly one of its most eloquent adversaries. Now it looks as the State he served so lethally and for so long is about to follow his lead.