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Virginia as the Confederacy’s cradle should shed its history of executions, Jim Crow and slavery

Virginia criminal defense lawyer advocates abolishing the death penalty statewide, nationwide, and worldwide

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In 1986 I voluntarily chose to live in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia, for its convenience just one subway ride away from attending George Washington Law School. The irony was not lost on me of moving from living and working in Manhattan to attending a law school named for a slaveholder and living only one-half mile from [Confederate General Robert E.] Lee highway. To this day, I do not need to drive more than forty miles from Washington, D.C., towards Richmond, Charlottesville or Roanoke for confederate flag displays to be common. In 1987, I moved to Washington, D.C., where I remained until moving to Maryland in 2002. Then, with most of my court appearances in Fairfax and other parts of Northern Virginia, in 2013 I relocated my home and office to Fairfax County, with the nagging recognition that I would be living in a climate where the law is substantially more unfavorable to criminal defendants than Maryland.

Not about to let others’ politics dictate where I choose to live, and believing strongly in feeling grounded and at home wherever I go, I relocated to Virginia rather than cursing the darkness of the commonwealth’s slaveholding, Confederate, and Jim Crow past; its excessively unjust criminal justice system; and its dubious distinction of being one of the more active executioning states. As a voting Virginian, I can vote and speak my mind, remembering that accumulated feathers sink the boat. All of that of course is easier for me to say living in Northern Virginia, which in many ways is begins like a seamless suburban extension of Washington, D.C. The state gets much more conservative in all ways the further one ventures from Arlington, Alexandria, and my county of Fairfax, Virginia.

How much good was it, really, that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe earlier in April 2016 vetoed a bill to mandate electrocutions when lethal injection drugs are not available for executions, when all along he was advocating for shielding lethal injection drug manufacturers’ identities (even if he was motivated by that to avoid the electric chair), in the hopes that such a law would make such companies willing to provide those lethal drugs to Virginia? No sooner did Governor McAuliffe veto an electric chair mandate on April 10 than both houses of the Virginia legislature passed the bill (the text is here and its history here) supported by McAuliffe to shield lethal injection drug manufacturers’ identities? Clearly McAuliffe will sign this bill, and clearly the lawyers for capital defendants will challenge shielding the manufacturers’ identities, because their identities are relevant both to getting to the bottom of the ingredients (and any contamination therein) in the drugs used for lethal injection — for challenging whether the lethal drug cocktail will pass muster with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment — as well as the reputation of the manufacturers for telling the truth, which is relevant to questioning the extent to which their drug bottle contain precisely what those bottles’ labels claim to contain.

The state Senate voted 22-16 and House voted 59-40 in favor of the bill, meaning about 40% opposed the lethal injection drug secrecy bill in each chamber, meaning we have a good number of level-headed people on this issue in the state legislature, but not enough to stop the bill. Thanks to my state Senator Janet Howell and Representative Mark Keam for voting against shielding the identities of lethal drug manufacturers. Thanks to nearby Fairfax trial lawyer and state Senator Scott Surovell for voting against the bill underlining: “This bill will shield one little part of our government from transparency… Mistakes happen the most when we put a shadow over things.” No thanks to nearby Arlington trial lawyer and state representative David Albo for voting for the bill; I take it that Albo — whose law firm repeatedly defends criminal defendants while Albo touts a tough-on-crime persona — will be a reliable vote for the pro-death penalty crowd for future capital punishment efforts.

The death penalty remains racist overall, barbaric and unjust, never reversible. Particularly with its shameful slaveholding, Jim Crow and racist past, Virginia — the cradle of the Confederacy after its first being headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama — needs to trash the racist death penalty.