The criminal justice system in America is inherently flawed due to the nature of systemic racism in the United States. Black Americans make up only 13% of the population, but Black people overall make up 38% of the prison population. Some studies estimate that one out of three Black men will be incarcerated at some point in his life. Not only are Black defendants jailed at higher rates, but prosecutors are more likely to seek harsher sentencing for Black people over others. 42% of all death row inmates in 2020 were Black. Additionally, prosecutors are more likely to seek out and gain conviction for the death penalty if victims of the crime were white. On March 24, 2021, Virginia became the first southern state to abolish the death penalty, which was a step in the long road toward rectifying racial injustice.
The death penalty is a draconian punishment that fails to deter crimes like murder. States with the death penalty have had either higher or the same murder rates as states without.
Furthermore, an argument can be made that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment, as it can be construed as a cruel and unusual punishment.
“In light of the massive amount of evidence before us, I see no alternative but to conclude that capital punishment cannot be justified on the basis of its deterrent effect,” wrote Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1972.
In a moral sense, the death penalty is wrong because human life is ultimately valuable, regardless of the crime a person has committed. For this reason, sacrificing one person’s life for the sake of justice is not a fair trade-off. Redistributive justice — the idea that punishing the criminal brings justice to the victim — does nothing to prevent future crimes from happening.
The death penalty is an inhumane practice, which the Roman Catholic nun Helen Prejean, author and spiritual advisor to death row inmates, poignantly underscored.
“In killing chambers, I’ve seen close-up the torture and suffering of human beings, rendered defenseless and killed by the state, their lives stripped of all dignity,” Prejean said. The sanctity of human life cannot be understated. Other religious leaders have echoed the sentiment of sister Prejean in their writings.
“To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, it is not justice,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Likewise, others have been falsely convicted and put to death. For example, Earl Washington Jr. was convicted of rape and murder in Virginia in 1984. He was subsequently sentenced to death despite having developmental disabilities. He spent 17 years on death row, and once came within nine days of a scheduled execution before he was exonerated due to new evidence. Earl Washington Jr. was lucky, but many others are not so fortunate. Take the case of George Stinney Jr., who was wrongfully convicted by an all-white jury for murdering two young girls when he was 14. It only took 10 minutes for an all-white jury to convict him, and he was later sentenced to death. He would be the youngest person ever put to death in the United States.
Virginia was once second only to Texas in the number of people it executed. The people Virginia executed were disproportionately Black, a consequence of the racism in the Old South. Senate Bill 1165 has ushered in a new era of Virginia politics. By abolishing the death penalty, this bill will be the first step in the long road toward justice. Being the child of a formerly incarcerated man, I am proud to call myself a citizen of the first southern state to abolish the death penalty. I am proud to be a citizen of a state moving toward restorative and not punitive justice.