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Opinion: Virginia deserves a victory lap for ending executions. Let’s hope other states follow

Protesters of the death penalty hold signs
Protesters against the death penalty gather outside the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., this summer. The Virginia Legislature voted Friday to end capital punishment in the state.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

The Virginia Legislature on Friday voted to abolish the death penalty in a state that has sent more people to the gallows than any other in American history. It also made Virginia the first of the secessionist Civil War states to ban capital punishment, a practice with deep roots in slavery and the racism that framed an economic system based on white supremacy.

Virginia deserves its victory lap.

It has become clear in recent years that more and more Americans have lost their appetite for killing fellow citizens as a criminal punishment.

Virginia may become the first of the secessionist Civil War states to formally end a practice inextricably tied to slavery and its legacy of racism.

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The system itself is subject to manipulation, making the outcome too unreliable to determine whether someone should die, which necessitates millions of dollars in legal expenditures to try to ensure the innocent are not executed (an impossible task). The process is dragged out so long, it loses all penological purpose.

That reduces executions to acts of vengeance, a pursuit of justice framed as a settling of scores. The victims deserve justice, and their families and friends deserve to know that a heinous crime has not gone unpunished. But killing, even by the state, is not justice.

Even before most death chambers were shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been particularly devastating in prisons, the U.S. was a on a long trajectory toward fewer and fewer executions. Last year only seven people were executed by states, three in Texas and one each in Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, all of which were slave states at the start of the Civil War.

In fact, even with the Trump administration’s cynical resumption of federal executions last year after a 17-year hiatus, leading to the deaths of 10 convicted killers (the feds executed three more in January), the nation had the fewest executions in 2020 in nearly three decades.

The offensiveness of Greene’s social media posts wasn’t the issue. It was the violent threats against her future colleagues.

Opposition to the death penalty is increasingly a bipartisan issue, too, with groups such as Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty making moral and financial arguments against capital punishment.

“Republican Virginia lawmakers who did not vote to end the death penalty are out of step with the large number of GOP legislators around the country who have been voting for and even sponsoring repeal bills in recent years,” the group’s manager, Hannah Cox, said after the vote. “Virginia’s death penalty is a relic of the past, a failed public policy that wastes resources, kills innocent people, and fails to make the public safer.”

In this hyper-partisan political climate, it’s clear that conservatives won’t pay much heed to arguments from the left that capital punishment is a dark stain on our past and our present, and that the U.S. ought to follow most of the rest of the world in abandoning executions as a form of punishment.

So it’s good that the issue is being reframed from the right too.

Let those voices be heard, and heeded, in the corners of the nation where such inhumane acts are perpetrated in the name of the people. And let the practice end, and soon.


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