Earlier this month Virginia lawmakers voted to abolish the death penalty, making Virginia the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty and the first southern state to do so.
The move represents a striking break from Virginia's past – it was the site of the first execution on U.S. soil, and has executed more individuals than any other state.
And while the bill was expected to pass, there was still a lively debate from both advocates and opposers of the death penalty, with both sides claiming the moral high ground.
A Moral Debate
“There are many arguments for why we should abolish the death penalty. These arguments touch on everything from the moral implications of the death penalty, to the racial bias in how it is applied, to its ineffectiveness, to the extraordinary cost,” said Delegate Mike Mullin, one of the bill’s sponsors.
“But perhaps the strongest argument for abolishing the death penalty is that a justice system without the death penalty allows us the possibility of being wrong.”
He was referencing the case of Earl Washington Jr., which weighed heavily on the minds of many lawmakers voting to abolish. In 1984, Washington was wrongfully convicted of a rape and murder that DNA evidence later proved he did not commit.
Washington's I.Q. was 69, and it was determined his confession was coerced by investigating officers. He is the only death row exoneree in Virginia history.
Many Democrats also noted the disproportionate number of African-Americans sentenced to death, with Delegate Jay Jones calling it “the direct descendant of lynching,” and “state-sponsored racism.”
However, the other side of the aisle is largely opposed ditching the death penalty, and insists that allowing those committing heinous crimes to live is itself a miscarriage of justice.
Citing Virginia's two current death row inmates, Republican Rob Bell argued that “we have five dead Virginians that this bill will make sure that their killers will not receive justice.”
One Republican, Jason S. Miyares, even held up photos of those victims, drawing a direct juxtaposition between their brutal deaths and their killers remaining alive in prison.
“The evil that was practiced on these victims — they did not die with a last meal, they didn’t die with the benefit of their priest or pastor or rabbi. They didn’t die in the comfort of a hospital bed,” he said. “They died with sheer terror on their hearts.”
But morality wasn't the only driving force. Both sides of the debate also invoked faith in defense of their position.
In January, candlelight vigils were held across the state in support of ending the death penalty. “As someone who was raised Catholic, the idea that all people are created in the image and likeness of God is a phrase that is indelible in my brain,” one vigilgoer said.
This view is shared by Church leadership. Back in 2018, Pope Francis declared the death penalty is “inadmissable in all cases” due to its assault on the “dignity of the person.”
Across the state, however, letters-to-the-editor rolled in to every major newspaper and news outlet in defense of capital punishment – many with religious justifications for the policy.
The Roanoke Times published a letter citing Romans 13, often understood as a defense of capital punishment. That passage states:
"For it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil."
Virginia's governor is set to sign to bill into law, but the debate over the morality of capital punishment is hardly over.
What do you think – is the death penalty morally defensible? Is abolishing capital punishment an injustice to victims of violent crimes, or is the state simply never justified in killing human beings?