Friday, March 05, 2021

032 The Erickson Report for February 25 to March 10, Page 1: Good News on the Death Penalty

032 The Erickson Report for February 25 to March 10, Page 1: Good News on the Death Penalty

Okay, let's start with some genuine Good News.

On February 22, the Virginia House and Senate agreed on a bill to abolish the death penalty in the state. The bill now goes to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has already said he will sign it into law. Virginia will thus become the 23rd state to abolish this remnant of barbarity.

It's perhaps particularly notable in the case of Virginia, which has had a death penalty on its books since its establishment as a crown colony over 400 years ago. In 1972 the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional only to reverse itself just four years later, in 1976. In the years since that time, Virginia has murdered 113 inmates, second only to Texas. It's worth noting that some 46% of those killed were African-American in a state where they make up just 20% of the population.

Meanwhile, on a national level, a special report from the Death Penalty Information Center, released February 18, shows that the number of people who had been sentenced to death who were later exonerated has risen to 185.

The report revealed that 69% of those wrongful convictions involved "official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials" along with finding patterns of perjury and racial bias. As the organization Witness to Innocence points out, "These wrongful convictions were not mere accidents, but symptoms of a system wrought with abuse."

Happily, Virginia is moving to be on the right side of justice and history.

There is also cause for hope on the national level. Joe Blahden is the first  president to openly oppose the death penalty and promised to support legislation to that end.

Given the really slim majorities his party has in Congress, legislation to put an end to the federal level death penalty once and for all might be hard to achieve. However, as 37 members of the House recently reminded him in a letter, he does have the power to announce an immediate pause on federal executions and death sentences and to commute the sentences of those who are already on death row.

It remains to be seen how far he will go, if he will use what is clearly a president's authority or if he intends to limit himself to the symbolism of saying "I'd like to see a bill passed" with no follow-up or direct action on his part.

But at least this time it's possible.

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