The last time a Virginia jury sentenced someone to death was ten years ago, in 2011. The last time a jury heard a case where the prosecutor was seeking death was 2018, for a man who murdered his wife, and then a policewoman on her first day on the job—with two capital charges to consider, they unanimously chose life in prison on one, and deadlocked on whether to sentence him to death in the other. And just last year, a judge completely dismissed the charges in a capital murder case three days into the proceedings.
With two men on Virginia’s death row, both of whom were prosecuted by the same office that wrongfully convicted the Norfolk Four, juries unwilling to sentence death, and prosecutors increasingly unwilling to seek it, the time is now for Virginia to join 22 other states in ending the death penalty. Even longtime death penalty supporter Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw recognizes that “juries are just not handing out sentences anymore,” and voted to abolish it last week in a Senate Judiciary Committee.
But House GOP Leader Todd Gilbert, who appeared on WRVA Monday morning (listen to audio, below), somehow thinks Democrats (although there is bipartisan support for abolishing the death penalty, at least in the Senate) “have totally missed where Virginians are on their insatiable desire to undermine our criminal justice system.” Gilbert even blames the changing attitudes on the death penalty on brainwashing: “people from birth through college and beyond are fed a steady diet of ideology in school and higher education and in our media, and it’s all reinforced all the time…what people have learned is it’s easy to shift attitudes when you constantly bombard them with the proper way to think.”
Seems like he’s the one who’s out of step with the way Virginians think. Although, we already knew that based on his Caucus’s position on LGBTQ+ rights, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, voting rights, women’s rights, universal background checks, stopping climate change, and worker’s rights. It’s why the Virginia GOP lost the majority in the House and Senate in 2019, and hasn’t won statewide since 2009.
Much like the House GOP’s inability to grasp or accept the overwhelming scientific evidence about climate change, Delegate Gilbert ignores the science on deterrence, and falsely claims that, despite what Virginians’ attitudes are, it “doesn’t change the objective truth and justice and whether it is, in fact, a deterrent, which we know it is.” He claims to have “seen the confessions of people who decided not to murder their victim because of the death penalty.” This is just NOT how people think—people don’t have the ability to do this kind of risk analysis of the odds of getting caught, and what punishment they might face, and the odds of being sentenced one way or another. It’s why the science in fact shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent—over 90% of experts in criminology believe it does not have a deterrent effect. Not only that, there is some evidence that the death penalty increases homicides—via “attempted suicide by homicide” or “killing to invite execution.” In fact, if it had such a deterrent effect, why then did Virginia have, according to Gilbert, “some of the most heinous crimes committed in the country committed right here in the Richmond area?” Why did the death penalty not deter that?
It’s beyond time for Virginia to join 22 other states, and leave behind this barbaric practice, used in countries like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Virginians know it, and the House and Senate Democrats know it.