Death penalty abolished in Virginia, victory for workers

By Janet Post
April 26, 2021

“There is no place for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the South or in this nation,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam told the press as he signed a bill abolishing capital punishment March 24 in front of the Greensville Correctional Center, where the state’s execution chamber is located. That made the state the 23rd to abolish the barbaric practice.

Virginia’s rulers carried out 1,300 executions, more than any other state, since the first recorded execution in 1608. The state government executed 113 people since 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, second only to Texas.

“No state that has used the death penalty that long and that often has ever before abolished capital punishment,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told CNN.

The sentences of the two men on Virginia’s death row will be changed to life without parole.

Of the 377 inmates executed in Virginia in the 20th century, 296 of them — 79% — were Black. Today 41% of death-row inmates in the U.S. are Black. These were significant factors in the Virginia legislature’s debate of the bill.

“The capitalist rulers use the death penalty as a class weapon to terrorize and break the spirit of workers and farmers, in hope of preventing them from standing up and fighting against their exploitation and oppression,” Osborne Hart, Socialist Workers Party candidate for Philadelphia district attorney, told the Militant. “The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, overwhelmingly working class and disproportionately Black.”

Some 2,500 working people remain on death row in the U.S., 45 on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana. There have been 13 federal executions over the last 10 months.

The next state execution, of Quintin Phillippe Jones, is set for May 19 at the Tarrant County Corrections Center in Texas.

Demand end to federal executions

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 Joseph Biden calling on the administration to immediately halt federal executions and dismantle the death-chamber building in Terre Haute.

During the 2020 election campaign Biden claimed he had changed his mind on the death penalty after 30 years in the Senate as a proponent. In 1994 Biden co-authored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which added 60 new offenses subject to the federal death penalty.

In a March 22 Associated Press article, “On Federal Death Row, Inmates Talk About Biden, Executions,” four federal death-row inmates at the Terre Haute prison exchanged emails with the reporters. “I don’t trust Biden,” wrote Daniel Troya, sentenced to death in 2009. “He set the rules to get us all here in the first place.”