“This is, as we know, a historic day for Virginia. We are the first southern state to abolish capital punishment, but we will not be the last.”
— Jayne Barnard, Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, March 24, 2021
Last week, Virginia became the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty. At the signing ceremony, Gov. Ralph Northam and other speakers repeatedly referenced the racist history of the Virginia death penalty as a prime reason for its abolition.
It is not a coincidence that Virginia, the birthplace of American slavery and the capital of the Confederacy, has been at the forefront of the American death penalty. Over the course of its bloodthirsty history, Virginia executed nearly 1,400 people, more than any other state in the union — and most of those executed were Black.
The Rev. Lakeisha Cook of the Virginia Interfaith Center described how “early death penalty statutes in the Commonwealth reserved the death penalty almost exclusively for Black people… As extrajudicial lynchings became commonplace in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the state responded by carrying out more state-sanctioned executions in order to placate and deter white mobs who threatened to take justice into their own hands… Between 1901 and 1981, nearly six times more Black people were executed in Virginia than white people.” [Watch a video of her remarks.]
North Carolina’s death penalty is no less rooted in our own history of slavery and lynching, and it continues to bear the hallmarks of white supremacy. Our state’s modern death penalty is disproportionately used against people of color. Those accused of killing white victims are more likely to get death sentences. Black jurors are systematically excluded from capital juries. And of the twelve innocent people who’ve been exonerated after receiving death sentences in North Carolina, just one is white. The death penalty’s history is explored in depth in the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s recent project Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty.
The historic signing ceremony was held outside the prison where Virginia carried out its last 101 executions. As someone who has been fighting the death penalty for more than 20 years, I watched through tears, but they were not only tears of joy.
Just four years ago, I stood on the same spot while yet another Black man, my client Ricky Gray, was put to death in that well-used death chamber. We didn’t realize then that his execution would be one of the last. As grateful as I am that the slaughter has ended, I’m painfully aware that abolition came too late for many.
Meanwhile, across the state line, 138 people remain on North Carolina’s death row, and too many prosecutors persist in their efforts to increase that number. Some of the people who await their executions are my clients.
They are people who have made grave mistakes but who have worked hard for redemption. One just finished writing his memoir. Another is caring for a chronically ill fellow prisoner. Many grew up in poverty and dysfunction that was the legacy of racism, lynching and Jim Crow. All have families who love them. Their executions would not make our society safer; they would only cause more suffering and grief.
But Virginia’s reversal on the death penalty brings hope. As Gov. Northam said, punishment and justice are not the same thing. The Rev. Cook called for the transformation of our current punitive system into “one that is rooted in fairness, accountability, and redemption.”
Accountability isn’t just for those we label criminals; it applies to all of us, and it begins with acknowledging our history. As Virginia demonstrates, when we properly acknowledge the death penalty’s racist roots — together with its ever-mounting toll — we cannot allow it to continue.
Elizabeth Hambourger is a capital defense attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. She represents several men on North Carolina’s death row.