Death penalty opponents are celebrating another milestone in Virginia, where the House of Delegates approved a bill Feb. 5 to abolish capital punishment in the state.
The 57-41 vote followed the Senate’s 21-17 passage of an identical measure on Feb. 3. Next, a single version of the bill must be approved by both chambers before the end of the legislative session on Feb. 27. Gov. Ralph Northam has vowed to sign the bill.
Organizers of a faith-based campaign for abolition took to social media to both mark the milestone on Friday and to keep the pressure on lawmakers going forward.
“The death penalty is the direct descendant of lynching. It is state-sponsored racism and we have the opportunity here to end this today,” the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which organized an ecumenical and interfaith movement to support the legislation, tweeted shortly after the House vote.
Their campaign included lay and clergy petition drives, press conferences and prayer vigils at historic lynching sites to underscore the death penalty’s deep roots in slavery, the Jim Crow era and present-day systemic racism.
With African Americans comprising 100% of current Virginia death row inmates, the campaign drove home the message that capital punishment is an inherently racist practice used to communicate that Black lives do not matter.
“Virginia’s death penalty is deeply entwined with our state’s shameful history of lynching and racial oppression,” said LaKeisha Cook, a Baptist minister and justice reform organizer for the Interfaith Center.
Cook said the campaign will continue. “As people of faith, we feel called to shine a light on the racist legacy of violence that gave birth to modern-day capital punishment. We are optimistic that this will be the year we end the death penalty in Virginia.”
Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA, described the House and Senate actions as a historic blow against racial injustice.
“The Commonwealth is about to become the first former Confederate state to repeal the death penalty, showing the nation what must be done to reckon with our justice system’s deep-rooted racism,” Silberstein said in a prepared statement. “Over the past year, millions of Americans witnessed the murders of Black people by police, violent suppression of protests, and finally a spree of vicious executions by the last presidential administration. Virginia is taking action on our collective horror and will become an example for a nation that needs to reconcile.”
Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty issued a statement that the backers of capital punishment have lost touch with a majority of Americans to oppose the practice.
“Republican Virginia lawmakers who did not vote to end the death penalty are out of step with the large number of GOP legislators around the country who have been voting for and even sponsoring repeal bills in recent years,” said Hannah Cox, the organization’s senior national manager. “Virginia’s death penalty is a relic of the past, a failed public policy that wastes resources, kills innocent people, and fails to make the public safer.”