The following statement can be attributed to Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia:
Today Virginia made history by becoming the first state in the south poised to repeal the death penalty. The General Assembly passed legislation that Gov. Ralph Northam has committed to sign into law. Abolishing the death penalty is an important step in the process of bringing racial justice to Virginia’s criminal legal system. In Virginia, the death penalty has always been about race. Prior to a Supreme Court ruling in 1978, 90% of people who were killed by the Commonwealth were Black. Even today, someone who commits murder is far more likely to get the death penalty if their victim is white, and less likely if the victim is Black.
We are grateful that our legislators finally acted to abolish this racist and inhumane practice. As we celebrate, we acknowledge that it is thanks to the collective work of so many advocates and organizations over many years that delivered this victory for justice today.
More than 20 years ago, the ACLU of Virginia released a report called Unequal, Unfair and Irreversible Death: The Death Penalty in Virginia as a “springboard to further study." There have been many stalwart advocates then and since – people like Marie Deans and our past executive director Kent Willis – and leaders from Virginians Against the Death Penalty and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, who together with the bipartisan legislative patrons of this year’s repeal bills, have made this outcome possible.
Capital punishment is, and has always been, a broken process that needed to end. We’re glad that perseverance and resilience paid off today.