Northam’s Good Move: End Executions

The Martinsville Seven

By Peter Galuszka

Governor Ralph Northam will propose legislation to ban executions in the state. The move could end decades of systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

“I’ve strongly about this for a long time,” he was quoted as saying. The bill will be taken up by the General Assembly, which met in its 2021 session today.

If the bill passes, it would make Virginia the only Southern state to ban executions.

According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, 113 executions have been conducted in the state since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976. Virginia’s vigorous efforts to kill those convicted of capital crimes gave it the dishonorable distinction of being No. 2 in the country after Texas which had 570 executions in that time frame.

Historically, African Americans have been executed at rates that exceed their numbers in the general population.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s analysis of executions nationally: “Since executions resumed in 1977, 295 African-Americans defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, while only 21 During this white defendants have been executed for the murder of an African-American victim.”

During this period, 56 Whites were executed and 51 Blacks. Notably, Blacks make up nearly 19 percent of the population but they accounted for 45 percent of the executions.

From 1900 to 1969, in Virginia 185 Blacks and 46 Whites were executed for murder. During that period, 75 Blacks were executed for rape while no Whites were.

One famous example, nearly 70 years ago, seven Black men were executed for the 1949 rape of a White Martinsville woman. She was collecting debts when the seven men, then drunk, approached her and she was raped. The case became an international scandal since no Whites were.

Northam’s action comes as part of a criminal justice reform movement that could have criminal records automatically exonerated if convicts serve their time. Stiff penalties for the mere possession (not sale) of drugs are also being reconsidered.

His calls for ending executions come during a wave of executions of federal programs as the Trump Administration comes to a close. According to the Guardian, Trump’s people have executed more prisoners than all the rest of the states combined. Such policies have enraged civil rights activists and criminal justice reformers.

Many have their own opinions of Northam’s performance. He is constantly been flogged by right wingers on this blog as botching the COVID 19 crisis, handling his medical school yearbook controversy badly and a host of other alleged sins. He’s been regularly called “coonman” on this blog where “ad hominin” attacks are frowned upon (against conservatives that is; liberals are fair game).

I think Northam has done a tremendous job. So does the Roanoke Times in an editorial today. It states: “Now the question that needs to be asked is this: Has any other Virginia governor presided over as much change as Northam has? The Northam administration has turned out to be dizzyingly transformational.”

His predecessor, Terry McAuliffe who is running for governor again, failed for four years to get the General Assembly to expand Medicaid coverage. Before McAuliffe, Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, brought international shame to the state during his trial for corruption.

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58 responses to “Northam’s Good Move: End Executions

  1. One of my favorite Republican delegates, Clint Miller, routinely voted against death penalty bills. Tim Kaine was a death penalty opponent, and we used that against him in a campaign, but as I recall as Governor some executions continued. The Governor has to sign the warrants, as I recall. No objection from me if Virginia removes that penalty from the books. But if I were in the legislature, I’d be using that concession to push back on other things. As always, it is not the individual pieces but the whole package that must be examined. The whole package this year is dismantling our criminal justice system.

    Transformational. Yep, my former colleague Dwayne Yancey picked the right word. That doesn’t mean we’re going to be cheering in a couple of years.

    • Expanding the death penalty might be bad, but so is totally abolishing it. Totally abolishing the death penalty can leave prison employees and cellmates defenseless against a murderous inmate.

      A murderer already serving a life sentence has nothing to lose from killing his cellmate if there is no death penalty. For example, serial killer Darren Witmer killed repeatedly due to the lack of an effective death penalty where he committed his crimes. He murdered two senior citizens, was given a life sentence, and then killed his cellmate, before committing additional violent crimes, like threatening a widow. One Virginia inmate killed two other prison inmates before being executed.

  2. “Historically, African Americans have been executed at rates that exceed their numbers in the general population.”

    Peter well knows (but will never admit) that that statement has no relevancy. Death sentences should be retained for egregious crimes regardless of race or any other liberal metric. Being the only southern statr to ban it is nothing to brag about.

    When I was growing up rape qualified for DP on Belvedere St. and still should.

    • The execution rate doesn’t prove racial bias. As the American Journal of Preventive Medicine once stated, “Homicide rates have consistently been at least ten times higher for blacks aged 10-34 years compared with whites in the same age group between 1995 and 2015.” If the homicide rate is higher among African-Americans, then even a NON-racist, non-discriminatory criminal-justice system will execute African-Americans at rates that exceed their numbers in the general population.

  3. Your statistics lack context. First, you show statistics that more black people are executed for murdering white people than white people for murdering black people, and compare it to the number of black people vs white people in the population. If you’re trying to make an argument for systemic rascism, you to compare those numbers to the number of black people who ACTUALLY murdered white people (as determined by a court) vs the number of white people who ACTUALLY murdered a black person, because these numbers are different than the proportions of the population as well.

    Then you introduce statistics from the later half of the Jim Crow era to try to argue that we are still systemically racist, which is a bold-face lie.

    Finally, you cherry pick an example from the same Jim Crow era that sounds pretty gruesome on its face. I’m not familiar with the story, maybe because I grew up in New York, but, as a husband and the father of a little girl, if a woman is gang-raped the way it sounds like this poor woman was, those who committed that atrocity should be executed, regardless of the races involved.

    Factor in all the grammar mistakes and missing words, and this article is generally pretty bad. (“I’ve strongly about this for a long time,” assuming the word “felt” should be in there, “…in Virginia185 Blacks…”, there should be a comma and a space)

    • Totally agree. Peter is committing statistical malpractice here.

      Also, he continues to dredge up genuine injustices from the Jim Crow as if they tell us something about the administration of justice today. News flash: A lot has changed in the 70 years since the Martinsville 7.

      There are legitimate reasons for eliminating the death penalty, most notably the fact that so many people convicted of murder have subsequently been found not guilty. (Once upon a time, I was an unapologetic advocate of the death penalty. The Innocence Project has changed my mind.) But statistical disparities are meaningless in and of themselves.

      • I have mixed feelings about capital punishment, but favor it overall. I think the problem brought to light by the Innocence Project is more one of incompetent representation.

        If the OJ trial taught us anything, it’s that representation in court is enormously important.

      • My interactions with the Innocence Project changed my mind on the death penalty as well. While I do not favor completely eliminating the death penalty I think it should be, as abortion proponents used to say, legal and rare.

        I do not think anyone should be sentenced to death for any crime other than 1st degree murder. I also do not think anyone should be sentenced to death based solely on circumstantial evidence, or the testimony of a single witness.

        While I think life without possibility of parole, and if necessary even life in solitary confinement without the possibility of parole, are appropriate punishments for the majority of the most serious crimes, the sad truth of the matter is there are people who, by their heinous actions and complete disregard for human life, prove that they do not deserve to remain among the living. The taking of a human life, any human life, is a serious matter and should not be trivialized, but I think it is sometimes necessary to protect society from the most evil among us.

    • “Finally, you cherry pick an example from the same Jim Crow …”

      I think that’s common to all of Mr. Galuszka’s attempts to prove systemic racism. Maybe I’ve missed one, but every article I recall on the topic had that issue.

  4. Jesse Matthew says hi.

  5. Mr. Galuszka,

    Capital punishment is a worthy topic, but it’s disingenuous to make it a race issue without substantially more justification than you have presented.

    “Historically, African Americans have been executed at rates that exceed their numbers in the general population.”

    We don’t execute citizens via a random lottery, so there’s absolutely no reason to expect that those executed would match their percent of the population.

    A glace at the FBI Expanded Homicide Table for 2019 tells the story.

    Perpetrators of homicide by race

    White – 4,728
    Black – 6,425

    Punishments are for crimes committed, not randomly assigned to match demographics.

    There are also many more males than female perpetrators. Are we to believe the U.S. justice system is discriminatory to males?

    Male – 10,335
    Female – 1,408

    Murder victims are also disproportionally black.

  6. I have added data to the blog supporting the point. “Statistical malpractice?” What crap! Also, I really get tired of the “that’s not the way it is now.” Why was Virginia the No. 2 state in the U.S, for executions? Virginia does not have the most people. It’s always the same bullshit from you conservatives.

    • “During this period, 56 Whites were executed and 51 Blacks. Notably, Blacks make up nearly 19 percent of the population but they accounted for 45 percent of the executions.”

      As demonstrated in my post above, the proportion of Black perpetrators of homicide is what should be looked at. That tells an entirely different story.

      As heinous as rape is, I do not support the death penalty for rape. That just provides an incentive for rapists to kill their victims. Are we still doing that?

  7. The opening paragraph’s use of the mythic “system racism” betrays the leftist sophistry on which this piece is based. A “system” is a conglomerate of processes, components, and interconnected flows that are designed to produce a predictable and repeatable outcome. “Racism” (as many have conveniently forgotten) is the belief that races have qualitative differences (superior v. inferior) and that those differences legitimize the marginalization and suppression of the inferior races.

    An exemplar of systematic racism within a government was South Africa’s Apartheid which codified racial discrimination in a systemic way. In Virginia and the rest of the U.S., there are no statutes or policies that are prejudicial on the basis of race save for contract set asides and other affirmative action programs that favor minorities.

    Claims of “system racism” are sophomoric and raise questions regarding the motivation for its use.

  8. Baconator with extra cheese

    Remember that logic, reasoning, and the scientific method are tools of whiteness.
    Using those principles, in the name of Equity, and Peter’s analysis is fine.
    Get with the new dogma NonPOCs!

  9. Sure. There’s no system racism just like global warming is not a threat. I am probably wasting my time here.

  10. The belief that systemic racism exists within the criminal justice system and the idea that global warming being a threat are unrelatable – the purported existence of one idea has no bearing on the other.

    Simply writing or speaking a comment into existence does not mean it is true or should be considered to be true. Articulating with some context the premising for your argument or point of view is essential. Otherwise, as you say, you are wasting your time.

  11. Thanks for the opinions. Still in favor of the DP. Don’t kill others. If you don’t allow others to live, you shouldn’t either.

  12. If the death penalty is to be eliminated, this is the way to do it. We don’t need any dip-#$%^ judge finding a new emanation. But recall, the Nebraska legislature repealed the death penalty only to see the voters restore in a referendum — something the better class doesn’t allow here.

    As far as statistics are concerned, journalists and politicians ae exempt from their use correctly.

    • Hardly a week went by in the Roanoke Times newsroom 35 years ago when I didn’t have to work a percentage for some other reporter. They could never work out the percent change on tax rates, prices, election results etc.

    • I wish this topic hadn’t gotten sidetracked on the race issue, as it deserves to be examined carefully from both sides.

      We should include an examination of the details of the crimes. Lisa Montgomery was just executed. Here’s why.

      “On Dec. 16, 2004, Montgomery entered Stinnett’s home and strangled the 23-year-old woman and proceeded to carve out the premature baby from her womb with a kitchen knife. At one point, Stinnett is said to have woken from her unconscious state and attempted to fight back, only to be strangled to death.”

      The baby survived and Lisa Montgomery claimed it as her own. I don’t know if the baby suffered any lasting effects from the gruesome premature birth.

      On the opposing side, there’s some question about Lisa Montgomery’s mental state and competency to stand trial.

      In my view, the above are examples of the factors we should be discussing, not race. Lisa Montgomery’s skin color is not material.

  13. Rather than jump into the morass of arguing the racial aspects of the death penalty, I have long opposed the death penalty on two grounds:

    1. The state should not be in the business of killing people. (The only exceptions would be cases of war and legitimate police actions.)

    2. As Jim Bacon has noted, innocent people get convicted. We don’t have to go back to Jim Crow. In Virginia, Earl Washington was pardoned by Gov. Gilmore after DNA proved that he did not commit the murder for which he came very close to being executed for. Gov. Wilder commuted Herbert Bassette’s death sentence based on doubts raised about his case. Gov. Allen stopped Joseph Payne’s execution three hours before it was to be carried out due to doubts being raised and his agreeing not to appeal. There have been others executed in the last 10-20 years for which there were substantial doubts about their guilt.

    Nationally, at least 20 people on death row have been exonerated. Surely, there have been others similarly wrongfully convicted and executed for which there was not sufficient evidence to support their innocence.

    • Thanks for getting the discussion back on track.

      As stated above, I have mixed fillings on this subject, and sometimes even vacillate from one side to the other depending on my most recent exposure to either a gross miscarriage of justice, or particularly heinous crime.

      I do not regret the execution of Tim McVeigh.

      But in response to your point about those wrongfully convicted, I don’t think the answer is to substitute life in prison for the death penalty. Neither is appropriate for innocent people. We need to find ways to get it right. That’s the most important problem to be solved in my view.

      • “We need to find ways to get it right. That’s the most important problem to be solved in my view.”

        And the hardest one to solve. Obviously we should work hard to make sure no innocent person is ever convicted of any crime, but no matter what we do (short of not prosecuting any crimes) there will always be the potential for miscarriages of justice because human beings run our justice system and human beings make mistakes.

        • The fact that something can never be perfect is not justification to avoid making improvements, and capital cases are a sufficiently manageable number to work on.

          In my view, when someone’s life is on the line, the defendants shouldn’t rely solely on public defenders. Doctors must treat all patients with life threatening illness who come to the hospital regardless of their ability to pay. There should be something similar set up for criminal attorneys with regard to capital cases.

          As a side note, I’m pretty sure Tim McVeigh didn’t get a stimulus check.

          “Federal judge rules inmates can now receive COVID-19 stimulus checks”

          • Did you miss the part where I said: “Obviously we should work hard to make sure no innocent person is ever convicted of any crime”?

  14. Jeffrey Dahmer ATE people and got life. ‘Nuff said.

    There really is only one possible reason for a “death” sentence. The person poses a continuing threat to the general prison population or the guards. And

    • Au contraire, madame

      Jeffrey Dahmer pleaded guilty in a plea agreement. That’s one advantage to the death penalty. There’s something less to negotiate away that still leaves people like him in prison for life.

      Regarding Jeffrey Dahmer, one must consider the alternative. Would you really want him free and living in your neighborhood? That could have happened.

      “Jeffrey L. Dahmer on Monday pleaded guilty but insane to the slayings of 15 young men and boys.”

      “If found insane, Dahmer could be sentenced to a mental institution where, after a year of treatment, he could petition for release every six months.”

      If you consider Ted Kaczynski’s case, it’s somewhat similar. There’s a good chance that critical evidence might have been thrown out on appeal, and he would have been set free to continue his rampage. Instead, he pleaded guilty and avoided the death penalty. That’s a good thing.

      • That such deals were made is, in and of itself, proof of the corruption of compromise on an ultimate penalty.

        Gee, I wonder if there is a racial component to merely the deals? Green River Killer, too, got the deal.

    • “Jeffrey Dahmer ATE people and got life.”

      And he has completed his sentence – or, rather, someone completed for him…

  15. Matt Adams. Thank you for your concerns about my health and well being. No, I have not been drinking today. I have been on the tennis courts and I generally try to avoid drinking before matches since it would be a great way to break your ankle.

  16. Peter is not totally wasting his time.

    When I first arrived in Virginia, I was part of a business group that met on Tuesday mornings. When DP came up, the group was overwhelmingly in favor. I was not so sure, though I thought that certain individuals surely deserved it. My objection was not that there was racism involved, only that if the system screwed up in executing a defendant, it couldn’t be fixed. If the defendant was sentenced to life without parole and innocence was later proved, the problem was fixable, at least to a certain extent.

    At the next group meeting , one member brought in his uncle, in charge of executions for DOC and the Commonwealth, and I was treated to a full discourse on how careful the state was when someone was executed–all the appeals, etc., and the humaneness of the process. Great attention was paid to how good the fact finding process was. At that, I had to laugh, which needless to say was not well received.

    My specific objection–you can’t fix it if you screw up–was never answered.

    Now: Fred’s objection to eliminating DP, the danger to other inmates:
    It would seem that Fred has either never been to Red Onion or has never heard about it, or been to M Building at the now closed Powhatan prison. As much as I quarrel with DOC about most things, I think they have gotten pretty good at handling the problems he raises, perhaps in anticipation of the move to eliminate DP.

    • So, CrazyJD, you know about M Building. I am assuming that you have actually seen it. Did you have an opportunity to go to the lower level? Most depressing place I have ever been. It brought to mind pictures of Medieval dungeons I have seen in movies.

      The one Va. offender for which a death sentence could have arguably been justifiable was Robert Gleason. He had been sentenced to life in prison without parole for murder. While at Wallens Ridge State Prison, he objected to having to share a cell with a mentally ill inmate. When DOC did not move the cell mate, Gleason beat him to death. Then, while at Red Onion, awaiting trial on that charge, he murdered another inmate. He then declared that he would continue killing until the state executed him. He was sentenced to death and moved to Sussex I State Prison, home of death row. He once bragged to DOC officials that he could have killed correctional officers had he wished to and provided credible evidence that he could have carried out his plans. DOC then went to elaborate (and expensive) lengths to reconfigure the cells at death row to minimize the contact that Gleason would have with staff or anyone else. He was executed in January 2013.

    • “My specific objection–you can’t fix it if you screw up–was never answered.”

      That’s an argument for being careful, not eliminating the death penalty altogether.

      There are numerous crimes where there is zero doubt as to the perpetrator’s guilt.

      Tim McVeigh for example. Would you prefer that he be alive in prison right now writing letters to his admirers? Did you know that inmates have a Constitutional right to mail. Some even get email.

  17. Here you go “statistical malpractice” hoopleheads, Black Americans don’t kill White Americans at anything close to an order or magnitude more often than the other way around:

    • Uh oh. Facts.

    • The entire discussion about the race of perpetrator vs. victim is 100% irrelevant. Capital murder has specific criteria that does not include the race of the victim.

      Capital murder crimes are a subset of murder. Look at homicides.

      Perpetrators of homicide by race in 2019:

      White – 4,728
      Black – 6,425

    • While I did not see where anyone actually claimed that there was an ” order of magnitude” difference, the difference actually is very close to one order of magnitude when adjusted for relative percentages of the population for each group

      Based on the graph, the raw difference is roughly 2 times the number of black-on white vs. white on black murders. However, there are a lot fewer blacks than whites in the population. The latest census data I found says non-hispanic whites make up 60.1% of the population while blacks make up 13.2%.

      Thus, there, are 4.5 times as many whites as blacks in the population.

      This results in a factor of 2 x 4.5 = 9 times as many black-on-white murders as white-on -black murders after adjusting for relative percent of the population of each group.

      An order of magnitude is a factor of 10, so it’s actually pretty darned close.

  18. “Data Hoopleheads” bravo! That one’s a keeper!

  19. Read you lazy hoopleheads, read!

    “Since executions resumed in 1977, 295 African-Americans defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, while only 21 During this white defendants have been executed.”

  20. Baconator with extra cheese

    I say we exacute all the whites who have murdered any Black in the first degree.
    I could care less about the scumbags and then we can put the debate to rest. Problem solved.

  21. Baconator with extra cheese

    Better yet, let’s exacute anyone who muders a Black in the first or second degree. All of them… even better. Truly demonstrate that Black lives matter.

  22. Couple repeal with a new law that makes hiring an armed body guard a felony with a ten-year sentence. Some lives are worth more than others. Many people who want equality, don’t.

  23. I’m worried … where’s Larry today?

    This would be a prime topic for him. Hope he’s not sick…

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