Virginia became the first Southern state to eliminate the death penalty on March 24, and faith-based groups were among those credited with leading the campaign for abolition.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation abolishing the state’s use of capital punishment during a ceremony at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., where Virginia previously held and executed prisoners.
Religious groups were integral to the effort to abolish the death penalty, including the Virginia Catholic Conference and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which organized ecumenical vigils at historic lynching sites and virtual press conferences with ministers across the state, and social media and letter-writing campaigns aimed at legislators and other state leaders.
“Virginia’s legacy on the death penalty was so closely connected to its history of slavery and lynching,” LaKeisha Cook, justice reform organizer for the center, said in prepared remarks. “Now that it is coming to an end, we can start a new chapter that embraces an evidence-based approach to public safety: one that values the dignity of all human beings and is focused on transforming the justice system into one rooted in fairness, accountability and redemption.”
Cook said much of the credit for the achievement belongs to people of faith across the state.
“We are hopeful that other states and the federal government will follow suit,” she said. “We are also grateful to the faith leaders, congregants and advocates for justice who joined us in the fight to end the death penalty and rid our commonwealth of this historical injustice. This victory would not have been possible without their voices and support.”
Sarah Craft, death penalty program director of Equal Justice USA, predicted Virginia’s action will have a domino effect beyond the state’s borders.
“This is the final action of a crushing blow against the death penalty, one of our nation’s most visible and egregious responses to violence,” Craft said in a news release. “It is part of our country’s reckoning with a deep and wide legacy of racial injustice. Virginia will become the first former Confederate state to abolish capital punishment following a year that saw the dismantling of 168 Confederate symbols across the nation — and nearly half of them in the commonwealth alone.”
Cook will participate in a March 29 Baptist News Global webinar about the behind-the-scenes efforts that resulted in the repeal of Virginia’s death penalty. Registration for the free event is available online.