Hailing the demise of the death penalty

In the fall of 1984, my wife secured a church position that had our Manhattan family of four moving south of the Mason-Dixon Line to Richmond, Virginia. That same year, Anne Holden and her husband, Tim Kaine, returned to Richmond from Massachusetts.

Kaine and I met one Sunday at the Friends Meeting of Richmond, and he convinced me to move forward with the prosecution of four youths who had thrown a brick through the front window of our house. If I didn’t press charges, he reasoned, he might well end up defending one of them years later, when the boy ended up on death row because he’d suffered no consequences for earlier errant behavior.

I did prosecute and we became friends. Neither of us knew what the future would hold. 

Within weeks, Linwood Briley became the second man executed in the modern era in Virginia. A friend at the Richmond Peace Education Center, where I was volunteering, invited me to attend a vigil for him held outside the gates. 

Across the boulevard, hundreds gathered to support the execution. Their signs read “Chicken Fried Briley” and “Fry Briley Fry.” 

It was my first adult watch at a death house, but would not be my last. I don’t know if Kaine was at that vigil, but in the years to come, he would serve as pro bono counsel for a number of men on death row. 

In 2002, I became the director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Kaine was sworn in to a four-year term as  lieutenant governor. He went on to serve four years as governor as well, and 11 men were executed under his watch.

The day of each execution, I would attend a noon vigil in Charlottesville, then drive to Richmond for a vigil outside the governor’s office. Before driving on to Jarratt for a nighttime vigil outside the death house, I would leave a note asking Gov. Kaine to commute the sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole . 

The Commonwealth has executed 1,390 men, women and children since 1608, including 113 since 1977. I lived in Virginia for 112 of those.

Over the last two decades, the number of states barring capital punishment has grown from 15 to 22. And in the next few weeks, the Commonwealth of Virginia will make that 23.

The historic significance of Virginia abolishing the death penalty is that she will become the first member of the former Confederate States to do so. And of all places, it is occurring in the Confederacy’s Civil War capital.

My home in Richmond lay one block off Monument Avenue. The avenue was graced by statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart and Matthew Fontaine Maury, all celebrating the “late great unpleasantness” or “War of Northern Aggression,” as some here in the South still call it.

Is it just a coincidence that these monuments to enslavement are being removed at the same time a jurisdiction that has executed more than any other is ending the death penalty? I don’t believe so. 

We are living in a time of great upheaval. Virginia may be the first southern state to abolish capital punishment, but she will not be the last.

The era of legalized lynching is coming to an end, not only in Virginia, but throughout the nation. And we should celebrate.

I relocated to North Carolina three years ago, and monuments to slavery’s lost cause are also coming down in the Tar Heel state. Let us commit ourselves to ending capital punishment at the same time.

My friend Tim Kaine is now serving as a U.S. senator from Virginia. And he is co-sponsoring the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2021. In announcing his sponsorship, he said:

“I have long been morally opposed to the death penalty and believe murder of any sort is wrong. Capital punishment in the United States is disproportionately applied to people of color.

“We cannot continue to make claims for a more perfect union while condoning outdated, inhumane, and unjust practices. As a former civil rights lawyer, I am proud to reintroduce this bill to eliminate the use of capital punishment at the federal level once and for all.”

Former history professor Jack Payden-Travers has led or helped lead Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Death Penalty Action. This essay was distributed through Peace Voice, based in Portland.


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