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Historian says getting rid of the death penalty indicates a shift in Virginia politics

Posted at 5:27 PM, Mar 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-25 10:16:17-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- University of Richmond associate professor Julian Hayter called the abolishment of the death penalty representative of a seismic shift in Virginia politics.

"It's in keeping with the "blue-ification" of the Commonwealth, if you will, considering that many blue states have long since abolished the death penalty," Hayter said. "This is a watershed moment in the state's history, particularly as it relates to its relationship with its brethren in the deeper South."

Virginia, he said, now stood out from other states in the South, but pointed out it was not that long ago when the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill to expand the death penalty. That bill redefined the so-called "triggerman rule" by making more accomplices equally culpable.

The bill was ultimately vetoed by then-Governor Tim Kaine, but both the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate passed the bill with the support of seven senate Democrats, and 25 Democrats in the House.

"I think there's been a profound demographic shift in the Commonwealth, in terms of this political realignment of red and blue," Dr. Hayter said. "I think there are Democrats now who feel safer to vote in this manner than they might have 14 years ago. Fourteen years in politics is a long time."

Virginia Governor signed legislation Wednesday that made Virginia the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty.

The bills were the culmination of a years-long battle by Democrats who argued the death penalty has been applied disproportionately to people of color, the mentally ill, and the poor. Republicans argued that the death penalty should remain a sentencing option for especially heinous crimes and to bring justice to victims and their families.

Hayter pointed to Virginia's troubled history of violence against people of color, particularly with lynchings. "If you go from 1608 to the current day, the state has executed more people than than any other state in the union," he said. "But there's another story with the death penalty in the Commonwealth and that is Virginia passed anti-lynching legislation in the late 1920's. So on the one hand, it looks like a progressive state essentially, you know, leading the vanguard, against lynching."

But that's where Hayter says capital punishment comes in. "What you do see is the institutionalization of capital punishment in a manner, that in some ways, eclipses the culture of lynching, that would have characterized other places in the south. So there were always racial implications to capital punishment the Commonwealth, dating back to the colonial era. Which isn't to say that whites weren't lynched as well, but the burden fell disproportionately on African Americans."

Virginia’s new Democratic majority, in full control of the General Assembly for a second year, won the debate last month when both the Senate and House of Delegates passed the measures banning capital punishment.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed the House and Senate bills in a ceremony under a tent Wednesday after touring the execution chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center, where 102 people have been put to death since executions were moved there from the Virginia State Penitentiary in the early 1990s.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.