Saturday, March 27, 2021

MCN/USA TODAY NETWORK: Commonwealths unite in disdain for capital punishment

 Matthew T. Mangino
March 26, 2021

This week, the Commonwealth of Virginia officially abolished the death penalty, making it the first Southern state to ban capital punishment.

“Justice and punishment are not always the same thing, that is too clearly evident in 400 years of the death penalty in Virginia,” Gov. Ralph Northam said during remarks ahead of signing the legislation, saying that it is both the right and the moral thing to do.

While Virginia has now become the first state of the former Confederacy to ban the death penalty, it is the 23rd state overall, following Colorado last year.

A total of 1,390 people have been put to death in Virginia, with the first documented execution being a Spanish spy in the Jamestown colony in 1608, according to NBC News. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, second only to Texas. However, Virginia has only two men on death row and not a single jury in Virginia has imposed a death sentence since 2011.

Virginia is one of four commonwealths in the United States—the other three are Massachusetts, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. What is the difference between a state and a commonwealth? Nothing, according Merriam-Webster Dictionary the term commonwealth was preferred over state by a number of political writers in the years leading up to 1780.

Regardless of their designation, the four commonwealths seem to be in step when it comes to disdain for capital punishment.

The last public execution in the United States was carried out in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. On August 14, 1936, it was reported that nearly 20,000 people crowded around the gallows in Owensboro to witness the execution of Rainey Bethea. He was convicted of the rape and murder of a 70-year-old woman.
            The murder was committed on June 7, 1936. Bethea pleaded guilty, was sentenced and his appeals were disposed of by August 5, 1936. He was executed a little more than a week later.    The Commonwealth was portrayed in a less than favorable light by the throng of media that descended on Owensboro for the hanging. The Kentucky legislature, embarrassed by the unfavorable attention, moved to abolish public executions.

            Today in Kentucky the death penalty is rarely imposed and only one person has been executed in the commonwealth in the 21st century.

The last executions in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts were gangsters Philip Belino and Edward Gertson on May 9, 1947.

After going 35 years without an execution, Massachusetts voters approved, by a whopping majority, a constitutional amendment providing that no constitutional provision shall be construed as prohibiting the death penalty.

Nevertheless, the commonwealth’s capital punishment statute was struck down in 1984 as a violation of due process. The state legislature passed a statute to reinstate capital punishment in 1986 but it was vetoed by then-governor Michael Dukakis, who became the Democratic nominee for president in 1988.

Since 1999, the governors of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have signed approximately 205 execution warrants without a single execution, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

There have been three executions in Pennsylvania since 1978. All three—Keith Zettlemoyer and Leon Moser in 1995; and Gary Heidnik in 1999—waived their appeal rights and volunteered to be executed.
            Three-hundred forty-eight men and two women were executed in the state's electric chair between 1915 and April 2, 1962, when Elmo Smith was executed for the rape and murder of a young girl. Smith was also the last person involuntarily executed in Pennsylvania.

The current governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, has imposed a moratorium on executions. Although there are approximately 142 inmates on death row, don’t expect an execution in Pennsylvania any time soon.

(Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino)

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