We Now Know the Death Penalty Is Wrong

Yesterday, 70 years after they were convicted and then sentenced to death by completely white and male jury in 1949 Virginia, seven Black men were granted posthumous pardons from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.

The evidence was shaky at best but worse was the history of Virginia criminal justice in 1949.

The charge the seven Black defendants faced was not murder — it was rape. Rape of a white woman who was known as the “Watchtower Woman.”

She was a 32 year-old Jehovah’s Witness who was alleged to have traveled into the Black neighborhood of Martinsville, VA after dark to collect $5 for secondhand clothing she had sold to a Black woman. Once in that section of Martinsville some on hand suggested she should get home — or at least back to the east part of Martinsville — the white section.

But instead, she appeared at a Black woman’s door asking for help and looking disheveled and distressed.

By the time local police had done, seven young Black men were in custody for rape — despite the fact she could only identify one or two with any certainty.

Martinsville police then obtained confessions from all seven of the men and it is likely the method used was an old one. Confess to us or risk facing a white lynch mob in 1949 Virginia. Well tried but rarely true.

By trial, Virginia was prepared to go forward with an assembly line of all white male juries and each of the men was convicted despite only two admitting real involvement and uncertain or non-existent identification by the victim. Once convicted, all seven faced electrocution.

Virginia’s death penalty for rape was worse than as unpredictable as summer lightning — indeed Virginia’s application of the death penalty was completely predictable in rape cases. If the female victim was white and the convicted defendant was Black, then the death penalty was applied without fail.

Not only that. If the male rapist was white there was no application of death as a penalty. None ever. And if the victim was a Black female raped by a white man, the penalty could be as low as a $20 fine.

Therein lies the reason the death penalty is wrong. Not only because it is final and this subject to ultimate infallibility, but because it has been corrupted by historical abuse and can no longer be assumed to be applied equally.

Death as a criminal penalty is therefore so tainted by its evil heritage of race-based application that it must no longer be trusted in a society that is unable to rid its criminal justice system of taints and stains deep into our legal structures.

Justice as carried out must be not only justice in fact but justice in appearance.

Our Nation’s history of racist misapplication of the death penalty has invalidated the irremediably final sentence from being seen as doing justice.

Consequently, no civilized system of criminal justice with the motto equal justice under law can ever apply the death penalty again.

-Albert Turner Goins



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