Saturday, 2 June 2007

What can we learn from Va.'s death penalty history?

Terry Shulman


Believe what you want about the death penalty. It deters crime. It doesn't deter crime. It serves justice, it placates the murder victim's family, or whatever else you may or may not think it does.

Only in the stark, cold light of history does the truth emerge — that our commonwealth, hands down, has killed more prisoners than any other state.

Since the execution of George Kendall in 1608, Virginia has gone on to take the lives of 1,277 people. It has proved more merciless in the sentencing of its residents found guilty of capital offenses — especially men who've had the misfortune in this case to have been born black — than any other state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

According to the Virginia Death Penalty Information Web site, between 1908 and 1962, the commonwealth put 236 people to death in the electric chair. Of that number, 201 were black men, 34 were white men. During that period, it also electrocuted Virginia Christian, a 17-year-old black woman, and Percy Ellis, age 16. In February 1951, the state executed eight black men within a 72-hour period.

The Queen City and vicinity joined in those first, chair-happy years of the 20th century with gusto. Arch Brown of Staunton, who committed the sensational murders of Perry Hoy and Cletus Higgs near Barterbrook, was electrocuted on the same day as Pink Barbour, born in Augusta County, sentenced to death for a murder he had committed in Harrisonburg. Their executions occurred not long after that of young Clifton Breckenridge, a black man who had committed the then-unforgivable offense of playing with a white girl.

So, as statistics don't lie, we only have to decide what to make of them. Is Virginia's place as the nation's most zealous practitioner of capital punishment something we can be proud of, along with the fact that it permits the executions of the mentally retarded, the severely brain damaged, and the mentally ill? According to the VDP Web site, at least seven mentally handicapped prisoners have been executed in the Commonwealth. Is this morally right?

There can be no doubt, thanks especially to the ever-increasing number of DNA exonerations nationwide, that not all those who have been put to death in Virginia were guilty of the offenses they were executed for.

Doesn't this mean that if the state hangs, electrocutes or lethally injects an innocent person, it is no less a murderer than the individual who takes innocent life? And if we the people are the state, doesn't that make us murderers as well?

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