During the first week of February, the Virginian Democratic Senate and House of Delegates voted in favor of abolishing the death penalty in Virginia. On Feb. 22, state legislators gave final approval of the passage of the legislation, which will be sent to Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who’s agreed to sign it.
Gianluca De Fazio, an assistant professor in the justice studies department, provided background information on the death penalty and its historical signifigance in Virginia. He said Virginia was the first state to establish the death penalty in 1608 and that since then, Virginia has been the state with the highest total number of people executed in the U.S.
Dale Brumfield is the field director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a nonprofit organization devoted to providing the public with information about potential alternatives to the death penalty. Brumfield said elections and the Black Lives Matter movement contributed to recent progress in efforts to abolish the death penalty.
“Elections matter when it comes to this,” Brumfield said. “This wouldn’t have happened if not for a confluence of things. One of those things was Democrats running the House, Senate and Governor’s mansion.”
Brumfield also said the Black Lives Matter Movement and the murder of George Floyd contributed to raising awareness about racial disparities in the justice system, which led to an increased number of criminal justice reform efforts in Virginia.
Summer Khaswan, campaign director for JMU Democrats, said Democrats generally hold a negative stance on the death penalty.
“I can’t speak for all Democrats, but I can speak for the majority of them,” Khaswan said. “We would prefer the death penalty to be abolished. It’s inhumane, it’s ridiculous, it’s expensive — our state spends so much money just to uphold it.”
The College Republicans didn’t respond to The Breeze’s two inquiries for a statement. The 2016 GOP Party Platform indicates a generally favorable stance toward the death penalty based on the argument of its constitutionality since it’s explicitly referenced in the 5th Amendment.
Khaswan, De Fazio and Brumfield all said the death penalty has disproportionately targeted people of color in the U.S.
“The death penalty was never seen or used as a neutral form of punishment for the whole population,” De Fazio said. “It’s very clear that [the death penalty] was seen and used as a means of controlling and terrorizing Black Americans.”
Brumfield said that prior to 1976, the race of the perpetrator was always the driving force behind whether the death penalty was sought after. He said that in Virginia, individuals were seven times more likely to be put to death if they were Black than if they were white if they committed the same crime.
“Since 1976, it’s shifted a little bit,” Brumfield said. “You’re still 5-6 times more likely to be put to death if you’re Black than if you’re white, but the race of the victim has played a major role [in death penalty sentencing] since then. You’re three times more likely between 1976 and 2017 in Virginia to be put to death if your victim is white than if your victim is Black.”
Brumfield said the process of advocating for the abolition of the death penalty in Virginia was lengthy and challenging but that citizens were diligent in their efforts.
“This was a 30-year effort,” Brumfield said. “This organization first got together in 1991, and a lot of people worked a long time only to meet disappointment after disappointment, but they kept hanging in there and doing it.”
Contact Sydney Dudley at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.