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By Jeff Brumley, Baptist News Global

A group of African American pastors urged Virginia lawmakers Jan. 7 to abolish the state’s death penalty, equating it to lynching and a declaration that Black lives do not matter.

The ministers’ press conference, held on Zoom, was hosted by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which has organized a multi-faith campaign to see capital punishment overturned in the state in 2021.

The movement includes ongoing petition drives, including one for clergy, that was delivered to Virginia’s General Assembly when it convenes Jan. 13.

“We urge legislators this year to abolish this racist practice of lynching by way of the death penalty in the state of Virginia,” said Marvin D. Warner, assistant pastor of North Hope Baptist Church in Danville, Va., and president of the Danville Ministers’ Alliance.

Warner and other ministers who participated in the virtual news conference urged lawmakers to act swiftly in passing a bill to replace the sentence of capital punishment with life in prison without possibility of parole, including for those currently on death row.

Virginia has executed 113 inmates since the practice was reinstituted in 1976 by the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s second behind Texas at 570, according to DeathPenaltyInfo.org.

The state’s most recent executions occurred in 2017, and its last death penalty sentence was handed down in 2011 but later overturned, the center said.

Yet, African Americans continue to be unfairly targeted by the law.

Even though the state’s “lynching numbers look low compared to other Southern states . . . the impact is disproportionately on the African American. Our death row is 100% Black,” said LaKeisha Cook, justice reform organizer for the interfaith center.

The time has come not only to acknowledge the historical wounds inflicted by slavery, lynching and Jim Crow laws but also to atone for them through the action of repealing capital punishment, she said. “The core of our country’s heart bears the undeniable wound of racism. This is a racial justice issue.”

It’s also a moral and criminal justice issue, said James Page, senior pastor at Galloway United Methodist Church in Falls Church, Va., and co-chair of the Virginia United Methodist Conference Board of Church and Society.

That innocent people are often executed is regularly proved by DNA evidence and recanted eyewitness testimony, but often too late and most often for African Americans, Page said. “If Black lives matter, we must have a system that does not devalue the lives of Black people.”

That disparity has been present throughout the state’s history. Between 1800 to 1900, for example, 538 Blacks were executed in the state compared to 45 whites, according to information provided by the center.

“No matter the crime, a Black person would get the death penalty where a white person would get one or two years,” Page said. He cited as an example the 1908 execution of a Black man for frightening a white girl. “He was not allowed to say anything against his accuser.”

The Rev. James Page

But the modern execution system is just as wrong, he added. “This death penalty setup is just a legal way to allow lynching to continue without the word ‘lynch’ inside of it.”

That’s why clergy across the state should sign the petition to abolish the death penalty, said Duane Hardy, senior pastor of Seven Pines Baptist Church in Sandston, Va., and co-chair of the social justice committee of the Henrico Ministers’ Conference.

“It’s horrific and it needs to change,” he said.

Hardy quoted Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now” statement, in which he said, “There is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

That should be driving the state’s clergy and churches to urge legislators to rescind capital punishment, he said. “We can no longer be late.”

Declining interest in capital punishment is another reason to act now, Warner said. “Most Virginians have abandoned the idea of lynching in this present age.”

Prohibitive costs associated with convicting and executing inmates, including the lengthy appeals process, should get legislators behind the bill, he said. “And (capital punishment) does not deter crime.”

There also are theological reasons to end capital punishment in Virginia, said Keith Jones, senior pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., and president of the Metro Baptist Ministries Conference.

A basic Christian teaching is that judgment is inevitable and redemption is a possibility. The death penalty, however, robs individuals of the possibility of redemption, he said.

“We believe life is valuable and that in no instance is that person’s value destroyed by their conduct. We believe very person has a right to live. Execution violates that right.”