Pending only the governor’s signature, Virginia legislators approved this Monday to abolish the death penalty in the state with the most executions in the history of the United States. Not only that: it is also the first state in the south of the country, where the territories in favor of capital punishment are concentrated, which does so. When the governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, signs the bill and it takes effect, Virginia will be the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, leaving 27 others in force (including the federal government and the military courts).
The Democratic majority in both houses has pushed the law forward on the grounds that the death penalty has been disproportionately applied to people of color, mentally challenged and homeless. Local Republicans resisted, considering that the measure leaves victims and their families without redress, and that certain types of crimes are so terrible that they do not allow any other option. A Republican senator joined Democratic representatives in the vote.
The state of Virginia has executed about 1,400 people since the first time, in 1608, in its days as a colony, according to the NGO Information Center for the Death Penalty (DPIC, in its English acronym), almost the same number as those executed throughout the country since 1976 (1,532). Since the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, the second most significant number after Texas. This sad percentage is due, according to the aforementioned NGO, to the combination of weak defenses and the country’s most draconian procedural rules, by virtue of which the convicted were denied any review of claims that their lawyers filed with defective form, including when, for reasons beyond the defendant’s control, his defense failed to meet the submission deadlines.
The entry into force of the law has brought salvation to the only two prisoners left on Virginia’s death row, both convicted in the first decade of this century. Inmates will serve a life sentence, without the possibility of obtaining parole.
“This painful story exposes the racism that underpins capital punishment,” he wrote last week. In the diary The Washington Post Democrat Tim Kaine, who was Governor of Virginia and currently represents the State in the US Senate. “In the 19th century, Virginia executed 513 blacks and only 41 whites,” Kaine recalls in the article, adding that crimes that are only classified as offenses if they are perpetrated by a white man, they constitute punishable crimes if committed by a black man. Between 1908 and 1965, 55 people – all black – were executed for rape or attempted rape. As a lawyer, and before making the leap into politics, Kaine represented several inmates on death row.
Only 55% of Americans today consider, according to a Gallup poll, that capital punishment is the appropriate punishment for a murderer, the lowest support in history, despite which Republican Donald Trump said goodbye to the presidency with a record of executions of federal prisoners. As of last July, no federal inmate had been executed in 17 years, a record set by the pace set by the Republican Administration, responsible for the highest number of executions in a hundred years, and contrary to the appreciable downward trend in the states.
The number of federal inmates executed by the Trump Administration in less than a year exceeded the sum of the prisoners executed by the States in that period. As of October 1, there were 2,494 inmates on death row out of the 28 states that, including Virginia, applied capital punishment, according to the DPIC. To the total, another 55 had to be added in federal prisons, and four more in the military. Since 1998, when 295 convictions were imposed, the number has been drastically reduced year after year, with the fewest cases recorded in 2020 (18). President-elect Joe Biden has promised to end the use of the death penalty.
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