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March 24, 2021

The following statement can be attributed to Executive Director Claire Gastañaga:

“As I watched the governor sign a law ending the death penalty in Virginia, I thought of the centuries of executions carried out on behalf of Virginians. Our Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state under the guise of justice, but it is a racist, barbaric practice. And thankfully, it ends today.

The death penalty has always been about race. Prior to a Supreme Court ruling in 1978, 90% of people who were executed in the Commonwealth were Black. Even today, someone who commits murder is far more likely to get the death penalty if their victim was white, and less likely if the victim was Black. The disparate enforcement of the death penalty is one more way the criminal legal system has devalued Black lives, and ending the death penalty is a victory in the pursuit of racial justice.

Virginia is the first state in the South to ban the death penalty, and it took many decades of hard work for us to get here. My predecessor, Kent Willis, advocated tirelessly for more than two decades on this issue, and alongside many organizations and individuals, the ACLU of Virginia staff and Board of Directors has worked continuously to influence lawmakers and change hearts and minds. Today’s historic move is a credit to courageous legislators like Frank Hargrove, Ken Plum, and Harvey Morgan, committed capital defense counsel, advocates like Jerry Givens and Marie Deans (often called the “courageous fool of death row”), and leaders from Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, and the Virginia Catholic Conference, among others.

While the wheels of justice often turn slowly, we are grateful to be closing the chapter on this racist and inhumane practice and bringing our Commonwealth one step closer to being a place where all enjoy liberty and equality in equal measure.”