Disturbing legacy: Race still affects Virginia's death penalty

By King Salim Khalfani and Stephen A. Northup

According to the most recent polling data, public support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in decades. Four states have ended capital punishment since 2007, and strong abolition efforts are underway in a number of other states.

So where is Virginia in this current national debate?

Virginia has a long and dark history with the death penalty. The first execution in the New World took place here in 1608 when Captain George Kendall was executed in Jamestown for spying. Throughout its history, Virginia has executed more than 1,300 people, more than any other state. Virginia has executed more women and the youngest children of any state. Since the resumption of capital punishment in the late 1970s following a de facto moratorium imposed by the courts, Virginia has executed 109 people, second only to Texas.

The average time between conviction and execution in Virginia is less than eight years, by far the shortest in the nation. Since the 1970s, 140 persons convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence; the 140 spent an average of 10 years on death row. Many of these victims of injustice– had they been convicted in Virginia– would have been executed before evidence of their innocence came to light.

Notwithstanding Virginia's rush to judgment in its capital cases, one innocent Virginian– Earl Washington– was released from death row in 1994 following his conviction and death sentence. And just last year, a federal judge vacated the conviction and death sentence of another Virginian– Justin Wolfe– because of misconduct by prosecutors at his trial. The judge also found that Wolfe was innocent of the murder-for-hire for which he was convicted.

While facts like these should be sufficient to cause any concerned citizen to question why Virginia chooses to persist in its use of capital punishment, we want to focus on one aspect of Virginia's use of the death penalty that is perhaps the most disturbing of all– the role played by race.

Without question, it's the single most salient factor in determining who is executed and who is not. For example, between October 1908 and March 1962, of the 236 people executed by Virginia, 201 were black males, 34 were white males, and one, Virginia Christian, was a 17 year-old black female. In February 1951, Virginia executed eight men in a 72-hour period. All eight were black, and seven (known as the Martinsville Seven) were executed for the rape of a white woman.

A number of studies have confirmed the significant racial disparity in the application of capital punishment. A 2003 report by Amnesty International entitled "Death by Discrimination– The Continuing Role of Race in Capital Cases" documented significant racial disparities in the race of persons who have been executed (predominately people of color); the race of victims of crimes for which death sentences are handed down (predominantly white); the race of prosecutors who seek the death penalty (overwhelmingly white); and the race of juries that return death verdicts (mostly white).

A report published in 2000 concluded that although Virginia's capital justice system is not as overtly racist as it was in previous times, "race continues to be a significant factor in capital sentencing" in Virginia. Among the report's conclusions based on an analysis of the 88 post-1976 Virginia executions that had taken place as of 2000 were the following:

1) In cases of rape/murder, the probability that the offender will be sentenced to death is about 19 percent if the victim is black and about 42 percent if the victim is white. 2) Blacks who rape and murder white victims are more than four times more likely to be sentenced to death than blacks who rape and murder black victims. 3) In robbery murders, a death sentence was more than three times more likely if the victim was white than if the victim was black.

It's no coincidence that the states with the heaviest use of capital punishment are located exclusively in the South, with its shameful history of slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow. Fortunately, the worst of these practices are things of the past. Unfortunately, their legacy continues in some present day practices, including the use of the death penalty. It's time for Virginia to bring this shameful history to a close.
Khalfani directs the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP. Northup directs Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.


These "statistics" cannot be evaluated on race alone... what was the criminal past of the blacks who were sentenced 4 times "more likely"? What was the community outrage for the victims? Is it white americas fault if blacks simply tolerate black on black crime ? Are blacks helping prosecutions or are they refusing to "snitch"?

What percentage of rapes are committed by black men versus their percentage of the population?

What percentage of the black females who are raped are raped at the hands of a black male?

What was the nature and circumstances of the crimes?

When factoring in the "statistics" did anyone look at the crimes of passion between married couples and the cold hard kidnap rape robberies?

If we break it down and look at extremely similar crimes were they treated as differently as the numbers appear to show?

I can think of one way that blacks could stay off death row.....stop killing and raping....

In the meantime don't blame a jury for wanting to rid society of somone with a 20 year criminal history that finally got caught in the act.....

If a person is guilty then hang em high... if that means more whites are put to death then so be it....

@Ponce De leon You raise some interesting questions in your comment. "Is it white americas fault if blacks simply tolerate black on black crime ?" I believe the article is making the point that predominantly white juries are tolerating black on black crime. It says more blacks are executed for comparable black on white crime than black on black crime. ("2) Blacks who rape and murder white victims are more than four times more likely to be sentenced to death than blacks who rape and murder black victims")
Also, "In the meantime don't blame a jury for wanting to rid society of somone with a 20 year criminal history that finally got caught in the act....." If he has been finally caught then he couldn't have a criminal history of 20 years.

Cville eye... I agree that white juries probably punish black offenders harsher..but my take on it is that it is because their is only outrage for a black death if it is at the hands of a white person or a cop, The travon martin case is a perfect example... how many blacks were murdered in cold blood by another black that same week and it didn't get any further than a blurb on the 6 oclock news? Whos fault is that?

The answer is not to let black murderers get away with it , the answer is to punish white murders more. which means that the black punishment is not racist... the lack of white punishment is preferential. You don't let pitbull "a" back on the streets because the cops let pitbull "b" back on the streets when they both bit somebody. Figure out a way to keep them BOTH off.

and to your second point that is why I put the words "in the act" in there.... If you look at most murderers they usualy have a long history of lieneicy from liberal judges based on some stupid notion that you can fix evil by giving second third fourth fifth and sixth chances to try again....

Blacks do get harsher sentences but it is not because there are a bunch of KKK on the juries, it is because whites can afford better lawyers. The answer to the ratio is not to let criminals walk the streets to make then umbers look fair, the answer is for the government to step up its game and stop letting the lawyers get their clients off by outspending the system. It can be done.

My point is that people like the author of this essay want to keep racisim alive by fanning some embers instead of placing responsbility where it belongs... on the black community.
There is a tremendous black vote and financial powerhouse of blacks in this country and if they would focus more on themselves instead of blaming others more progress would be made. The black leaders of today like Al sharpton and Jesse Jackson are as guilty of racism as all the old white men everyone wants to point too. They are both has bems that represent an different era.

Want proof? Look at how many mixed race baies you see EVERYDAY in C-ville... and it is a southern city....

I think it is more about money than race. OJ Simpson got off because he was a celeb with tons of money. It would have been different if he had been some black guy from the local housing project.
Take two cases where both men accused were white. Steve Roach up in Greene County murdered his next door neighbor, an elderly woman who had been kind to him. Mr Roach was not wealthy-he ended up being executed.
George Huguely murdered his ex-girlfriend. He had a wealthy family. He gets second-degree which his lawyers on appeal may yet get reduced to manslaughter.
I rest my case that financial resources mean more than race, at least today.

@HollowBoy...I couldn't agree more. We get the justice we can afford in this country without a doubt.

I'm not certain if it's still the case, but New York put a moratorium on death penalty cases because countless people plea bargained for life in prison to avoid the hangman simply because they were going to receive hurried, "less-than-stellar" representation from the public defenders office. They agreed to spend there life in prison rather than die for a crime they may or may not have committed.

Make no mistake, I'm not a bleeding heart in any way. I just feel the laws are applied unevenly in our broken system. It's all about the money...

The authors' citation of Amnesty International is comical. They have as much of an agenda as the so-called law-and-order types implicitly accused of handing down death sentences.

The implication in all these types of articles continues to be that "the man" is trampling on the oppressed. Sadly, the reality is that crime in black (poorer) urban areas is indeed much higher than in white areas. This is due to a lot of factors: breakdown of the family, lack of value in education, lax sentencing so repeat offenders return to the streets, a climate of fear (no snitching) and, of course, the drug culture. The economic hardship is a result of the above; it does not cause the above.

I would love Amnesty International to go into American cities and do some studies on the breakdown of culture there: why the dropout rate is so high, why families break down, why drugs have such a foothold, why education is eschewed, and why liberal policies that were allegedly designed to help blacks have failed so miserably. Then AI can propose long-term solutions to these problems in the black community.

Then the black community can climb out of this self-imposed victim mentality that is so crippling its progress.

The simple formula is:
1. Go to school. Graduate high school.
2. Either go to college OR get a job.
3. Court a significant other (if you desire).
4. Establish yourself in your vocation.
5. Get married.
6. Then have children.

Sadly, that recipe is largely not followed in many cultures, and that is what cripples them.

R.I.P.: Redd Foxx

@Liberalace "Sadly, the reality is that crime in black (poorer) urban areas is indeed much higher than in white areas." I think "violent" belongs in here somewhere.
Your post paints too broad of a picture of black people here. Have you ever watched Judge Judy?