By DIANE DIMOND
The death penalty in the United States is on the verge of being snuffed out.
The commonwealth of Virginia, which has executed more convicts than any other state in U.S. history, is now poised to abolish capital punishment. This is a big deal, as Virginia would become the first Southern state to eliminate the death penalty. Many see this legislative action as the beginning of the end to executions in this country.
When Virginia’s governor signs the pending anti-execution bill, the number of states officially outlawing capital punishment will rise to 23, plus the District of Columbia. Additionally, governors in several other death penalty states have issued moratorium orders halting executions. The trend seems clear.
The usual pros and cons of capital punishment played out during the Virginia debate. “The government should not be in the business of killing human beings,” Democratic Delegate Marcus Simon said. “It’s immoral, inhumane.”
Colleagues voting with Simon cited the often-mentioned possibility of executing an innocent person, the high cost of yearslong death penalty cases and the disproportionate application of this ultimate penalty across racial lines. In Virginia, nearly half of those executed have been Black, even though Blacks account for just about 20 percent of the population.
Virginia Republicans opposed to the move argued that to overturn the death penalty is to disrespect victims, their survivors and law enforcement. They also warned that some convicted murderers could be eligible for parole and released on an unsuspecting public.
Despite the apparent swing in the execution pendulum, many states, the federal government and the U.S. military still have death penalty laws on the books. But the fact is judges handing out new death sentences and executions has become exceedingly rare.
Last year, only 17 convicts were sentenced to death, most of them in Florida and California. As for state executions, there were seven in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas. In July 2020, then-President Donald Trump reinstated the federal death penalty, and by the end of the year, 10 federal convicts had been put to death.
A total of 17 executions in a country of more than 330 million hardly seems overwhelming, but to some citizens, it is 17 too many. It should be noted that everyone who has been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 was found guilty of taking part in a crime that cost lives.
By the way, the U.S. military hasn’t carried out an execution since 1961, when it hanged an Army private found guilty of raping and attempting to murder an 11-year-old girl.
The United States is the only Western country that still considers capital punishment acceptable. We rank seventh in the number of government-sponsored executions behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Iraq and Egypt. Are we like them? Should we still be carrying out executions?
Some will mention the biblical reference to an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Not to get all Bible-y, here but the Good Book also preaches rejecting revenge and the reverence for human life.
Yes, there are some crimes so heinous that the only logical response seems to be to rid the earth of the perpetrator. But what’s a worse punishment: Death or being kept alive in a cage, stripped of all rights and freedoms, and knowing the cage is where you will stay until you die?
The most important thing to remember is the fallibility of our justice system. It’s a fact that wrongful convictions have happened. The Innocence Project says that, since 1989, it has painstakingly proven that “375 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 21 who served time on death row.” Surely, there are more innocents.
Earl Washington of Culpeper County, Virginia, was one of those 21 inmates. In 1984, the 22-year-old Black man was found guilty of the rape and murder of a young mother and sentenced to death. After a long fight to prove his innocence, Washington, who at one point had been nine days away from execution, was granted a gubernatorial “absolute pardon” on the strength of DNA evidence. He was freed in 2001 and ultimately received a settlement of nearly $2 million for his wrongful incarceration.
Those against revocation of the death penalty would be wise to keep Washington’s case in mind.
To find out more about Diane Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com. Her latest book, “Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box,” is available on Amazon.com.