KERNSTOWN —At the site where a white supremacist mob lynched a Black man in 1893, five death penalty opponents on Friday prayed for its abolition comparing it to modern-day lynching.
The group was comprised of members of the NAACP Winchester Chapter 7127 and the Valley Interfaith Council. They said capital punishment is barbaric, kills innocent people and disproportionately kills Black people. They called it a vestige of the nation’s settler-colonial and Jim Crow past.
“Capital punishment is an expensive, racist, classist, error-prone system with no internal consistency,” NAACP member Tyson Gilpin said in a call-and-response prayer. “While we give thanks for the exonerated men and women whose lives have been spared since 1973, we rend our hearts over the individuals that remain on death row.”
The vigil was among several around the state organized by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. Other protests occurred in Alexandria, Chesapeake and Roanoke.
The local protest occurred on railroad tracks by Top Gear Motors at 3383 Valley Pike (U.S. 11). It was there on June, 13 1893, that 19-year-old William Shorter — charged, but never convicted of attempting to rape a white woman — was dragged from a train, hanged and shot. The lynchers were never prosecuted.
Shorter’s murder was the only documented lynching in Frederick County or Winchester, but death penalty critics say many executions of Black men and women afterward were legal lynchings. Between 1900-1969, 68 Black men were executed in Virginia for attempted rape or rape, according to the center. No white man was ever executed for attempted rape or rape during that time period.
An infamous local case was that of Winchester resident Howard Walker, a Black man electrocuted in 1944 for raping a white woman. Gilpin previously said it was widely known that Walker and the woman were dating and the execution was a warning against interracial sex. Interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia until the U.S. Supreme Court case of Loving v Virginia in 1967.
Virginia is one of 28 states with the death penalty. After stopping executions during a federal moratorium, Virginia resumed them in 1982. Since then it has executed 113 men, second only to Texas, according to the center. While about 19% of Virginia’s 8.5 million population is Black, the center said 46% of those executed were Black.
The last person executed in Virginia was William Charles Morva, a mentally ill white man killed in 2017 for murdering a deputy and security guard during a 2006 jail break. There are currently two men on death row, according to the Department of Corrections. Both are Black.
The Rev. John D. Copenhaver, a council member, said council and NAACP members plan to lobby the area’s four lawmakers next week regarding three abolition bills in the legislature. Three of the four legislators — Del. David A. LaRock, R-Hamilton, Del. Bill Wiley, R-Winchester, and state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Upperville — have called themselves “pro-life” in calling for Virginia to pass a law mandating pregnant women give birth even if they want to have an abortion. Holtzman Vogel and LaRock didn’t return calls or emails on Friday evening regarding their death penalty stance.
Wiley said in an email that he’s troubled by the idea of the state having the power of life and death. Nonetheless, he said there were circumstances where it was justified. He said the 2009 execution of Edward Nathaniel Bell for the 1999 murder of Winchester police Sgt. Ricky Lee Timbrook was an example.
“It is to be used only in the rarest and gravest of circumstances,” Wiley said. “But it is something that does have a place in our law.”
However, Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County favors abolition. Gooditis said in an email that if any of the bills get out of committee, she will vote for them.
She said the death penalty is a “cruel and antiquated practice” that disproportionately punishes minorities and the mentally ill and wastes taxpayer money. “The pragmatic and compassionate thing would be to end this horrible practice,” Gooditis said.