NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — From the very sites where hundreds were killed by lynch mobs or state-sponsored executions, Virginia’s dark history, from slavery to Jim Crow, was brought to light.
At noon people of faith in Richmond, Alexandria, Danville, Roanoke and Norfolk read aloud the names of men who were slaughtered by lynch mobs or killed in state-sponsored executions. They gathered to show support for a bill that could abolish the death penalty.
The gatherings came days after a bill banning the death penalty in Virginia passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Next, it heads to Senate Finance.
At City Hall Plaza in Norfolk, in the shadows of the Norfolk jail, persons of faith remembered the Black men who were slaughtered in the Tidewater area. The names that history ignored or forgot were read aloud and echoed off the walls of the court building and the jail that holds hundreds who await their day in court.
The prayer vigil was attended by local leaders from various faiths, a politician and even a prosecutor. The small audience also included a woman holding a handmade sign with the words Black Lives Matter. Another woman clutched a poster with a collage of images: Floyd, Martin, and Arbery. They are the modern Black men who were killed by violence.
The local vigil was organized by Dr. Keith Ivan Jones, Pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church. He has partnered with The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy in efforts to educate the public about the inextricable history of lynchings and capital punishment in the former headquarters of the Confederacy.
“In the late 1800s to 1900s [Virginia] decided — as opposed to continuing this legacy of lynching — that instead they would authorize capital punishment. So it became state-supported lynching — whether a person was guilty or not, they were still executed,” said Jones.
Over the past 30 years, death penalty convictions have declined across the country but the Trump administration broke records by executing 13 people in the last six months of 2020 and into early 2021. Dustin Higgs was put to death four days before the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, persons of color represent 43% of executions and 55% of those on death row. However, in Virginia, which at one time was a national leader in executions, all persons on death row are Black. There are only two.
Critics argue the courts also make mistakes. In 1993, the Innocence Project exposed the case of Earl Washington who was wrongfully convicted of capital murder.
Just yards from the Norfolk jail on Friday, politicians, preachers and a prosecutor called on Virginia to shut down death row.
“Pope Francis repeats the death penalty is inadmissible and there can be no stepping back from that position,” said the Rev. Jim Curran of the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception.
The prosecutor, who has represented the state in a catalog of horrific criminal cases, called for an end to the death penalty in Virginia.
“The death penalty is immoral and the death penalty must end, “said Ramim Fatehi, who told 10 on Your Side he is running this year to replace retiring Commonwealth’s Attorney Greg Underwood in Norfolk.
This week the Virginia Senate bill advanced. The only opposition came from the State Police Association, which called for an exception when a police officer is killed. A House bill will be considered by a committee next week.
Chesapeake Del. Cliff Hayes, 77th District, said Virginia is poised to make history again with the possible abolition of the death penalty this year.
“I think we are closer than we have ever been, and I am certain and prayerful that we will prevail,” said Hayes.