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.