As opposition grows, Virginia gov’t votes to end death penalty

By Janet Post
March 1, 2021

Virginia will become the 23rd state, and the first in the South, to vote to eliminate the death penalty. The state Senate repealed it Feb. 3. Gov. Ralph Northam has said he will sign the bill into law.

The legislature is still deciding whether those sentenced to life in prison under the new bill will be eligible for parole. Virginia had executed a higher percentage of death-row prisoners than any other state, the Death Penalty Information Center reported.

Opposition to the death penalty is growing among working people, and the number of state legislatures barring it has grown. Across the country there are still more than 2,500 working people on death row. Fifty of those are federal prisoners incarcerated at the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex in Indiana, where all federal executions take place.

There had been no federal executions for 17 years until the Donald Trump administration scheduled and carried out 13 beginning last July.

“The death penalty in the U.S. is marked by the brutality and class prejudice that is inherent in the capitalist ‘justice’ system. The purpose of capital punishment is to intimidate and terrorize working people, to deter them from coming together and fighting against the attacks of the bosses and their government,” Osborne Hart, Socialist Workers Party candidate for Philadelphia district attorney, told the Militant.

“There are no millionaire businessmen, no cops who have killed workers, or bourgeois politicians on death row,” Hart said. “And capital punishment is meted out disproportionately to workers who are African American and Latino.”

Led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, 82 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, sent a letter Feb. 9 to President Joe Biden calling on the administration to immediately halt all federal executions and dismantle the death-chamber building in Terre Haute.

Though Biden has a 30-year record in the U.S. Senate of support for the death penalty, in his drive to win the presidency Biden said he had changed his mind. In 1994 he co-authored the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act,” which was signed into law by then President Bill Clinton. It added 60 new offenses subject to the federal death penalty. “We do everything but hang people for jaywalking,” Biden bragged at the time.

“The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world,” Hart said. “The SWP campaign unreservedly defends the rights of prisoners, including the right to have access to the reading material they want, such as the Militant, in order to form their own opinions and be part of the working-class movement worldwide.

“We call for an end to solitary confinement and for the immediate abolishment of the death penalty!”

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower-court decision that put a stop to the execution of Alabama inmate Willie B. Smith III, a 51-year-old Black prisoner. He had been sentenced to death at age 22 in 1992 for the murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson, the sister of a Birmingham police detective. Smith was scheduled to be executed Feb. 11.

The ruling was made the night the execution was set to take place. The issue was Smith’s request to have his personal pastor accompany him in the execution chamber.

“Alabama has not carried its burden of showing that the exclusion of all clergy members from the execution chamber is necessary to ensure prison security,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court majority. Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett, a Donald Trump appointee, concurred in the decision.

The lower court had also ruled the execution should be put off because he is intellectually disabled, and to put him to death violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court overturned this, agreeing with Alabama officials that the appeal had been filed too late.

If the execution had taken place, it would have been the first state execution since July 8. A number of scheduled executions since then have been stayed, partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The next state execution scheduled is of Ramiro Ibarra, set for March 4 in Texas.