By King Salim Khalfani and Stephen A. Northup

According to the most recent polling data, public support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in decades. Four states have ended capital punishment since 2007 and strong abolition efforts are underway in a number of other states.

So where is Virginia in this current national debate?

Virginia has a long and dark history with the death penalty. The first execution in the New World took place here in 1608 when Captain George Kendall was executed in Jamestown for spying. Throughout its history, Virginia has executed more than 1,300 people, more than any other state. Virginia has executed more women and the youngest children of any state. Since the resumption of capital punishment in the late 1970s following a de facto moratorium imposed by the courts, Virginia has executed 109 people, second only to Texas.

The average time between conviction and execution in Virginia is less than eight years, by far the shortest in the nation. Since the 1970s, 140 persons convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence; the 140 spent an average of 10 years on death row. Many of these victims would have been executed before evidence of their innocence came to light if they had been convicted in Virginia.

Notwithstanding Virginia's rush to judgment in its capital cases, one innocent Virginian -- Earl Washington -- was released from death row in 1994 following his conviction and death sentence. And just last year, a federal judge vacated the conviction and death sentence of another Virginian -- Justin Wolfe -- because of misconduct by prosecutors at his trial. The judge also found that Wolfe was innocent of the murder for hire for which he was convicted. The history of Virginia's use of the death penalty is not something of which Virginians can be proud.

While facts like these should be sufficient to cause any concerned citizen to question why Virginia chooses to persist in its use of capital punishment, we want to focus on one aspect of Virginia's use of the death penalty that is perhaps the most disturbing of all -- the role played by race. Without question it's the single most salient factor in determining who is executed and who is not. For example, between October 1908 and March 1962, of the 236 people executed by Virginia, 201 were black males, 34 were white males, and one, Virginia Christian, was a 17 year-old black female. In February 1951, Virginia executed eight men in a 72 hour period. All eight were black and seven (known as the Martinsville Seven) were executed for the rape of a white woman.

A number of studies have confirmed the significant racial disparity in the application of capital punishment. A 2003 report by Amnesty International entitled "Death by Discrimination -- The Continuing Role of Race in Capital Cases" documented significant racial disparities in the race of persons who have been executed (predominately people of color); the race of victims of crimes for which death sentences are handed down (predominantly white); the race of prosecutors who seek the death penalty (overwhelmingly white); and the race of juries that return death verdicts (mostly white).

A report published in 2000 concluded that although Virginia's capital justice system is not as overtly racist as it was in previous times, "race continues to be a significant factor in capital sentencing" in Virginia. Among the report's conclusions based on an analysis of the 88 post-1976 Virginia executions that had taken place as of 2000 were the following:
  1. In cases of rape/murder, the probability that the offender will be sentenced to death is about 19 percent if the victim is black and about 42 percent if the victim is white.
  2. Blacks who rape and murder white victims are more than four times more likely to be sentenced to death than blacks who rape and murder black victims.
  3. In robbery murders, a death sentence was more than three times more likely if the victim was white than if the victim was black.

It's no coincidence that the states with the heaviest use of capital punishment are located exclusively in the South, with its shameful history of slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow. Fortunately, the worst of these practices are things of the past. Unfortunately, their legacy continues in some present day practices, including the use of the death penalty. It's time for Virginia to bring this shameful history to a close.
Khalfani is executive director of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP. Northup is executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Copyright (C) 2012 by the Virginia Forum. 3/12