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Last week, the Virginia House of Delegates voted to abolish the death penalty. In the modern era of the death penalty Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of condemned prisoners sent to their death. Gov. Ralph Northam has promised to sign the bill, which will make Virginia the 23rd state in the country without a death penalty.
Virginia’s use of the death penalty dates back over 400 years—to 1608, when Jamestown settlers carried out the first recorded execution in North America. According to TIME, in the centuries since, amid periods of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow segregation, Virginia has executed hundreds of people.
Virginia has also been the setting for at least 87 documented lynchings between 1888 and 1932, including Shedrick Thompson, a black man who was lynched in Linden, Virginia in 1932. According to research by James Madison University, even though a small number of the victims of mob violence were white, lynching was essentially a form of state-sanctioned terrorism against African Americans—few of those involved in lynchings were ever indicted and even less faced trial.
Virginia is also the state that sentenced Daryl Atkins to death twice and where seeking the death penalty for a third time. The irony is that Atkins’ first death penalty was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court when the court declared that executing the intellectually disabled violated the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The landmark decision carries his name Atkins v. Virginia.
Atkins’ case was remanded to Virginia for resentencing and the trial court sentenced him a second time to death. The case was sent back for a third sentencing when Atkins was removed from death row for an unrelated matter.
Gov. Northam was involved in a racist scandal himself. A decades-old photo of a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe surfaced from Northam’s medical school yearbook page.
Virginia is the home of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe—literally the founding fathers of the United States of America. They were also slave owners. Virginia has a lot to reconcile.
Northam’s scandal nearly forced him from office. He resisted widespread calls to resign and pledged the remainder of his term to rebuilding trust and addressing Virginia’s long history of racism and inequity.
To that end Northam empaneled The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law in 2019 with an examination of racist laws that—though long unenforced—had remained on the books.
The commission is comprised of lawyers, judges and law professors chaired by a former state chief deputy attorney general. The 100-plus page report focuses on six policy areas: housing, education, criminal justice, health, environmental justice and agricultural equity.
In the realm of criminal justice, abolition of the death penalty is a start. Blacks have been disproportionately represented in terms of executions in Virginia. As for education, the commission proposed overhauling the school funding formula, repealing statutory language that limits the power granted to the state to draw school zone lines, and encouraging programs like choice zoning and magnet schools to improve integration, reported The Associated Press.
With regard to housing, the commission recommended increasing affordable housing and reducing evictions through changes to landlord-tenant laws.
The report also calls for collecting better data on racial disparities in the criminal justice system; loosening or repealing restrictions on voting rights for people convicted of felonies; and closing the gap in healthcare access.
The report provides recommendations, not mandates, but it is a start for a state that a little more than three years ago was maligned for a rally of white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville that turned violent and deadly.
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