By Dale Brumfield
The newly enhanced secrecy behind Virginia’s capital punishment protocols underscores a legacy of death born in institutionalized racism that upcoming executions — including that of Ivan Teleguz, scheduled April 25 — do not just prolong, but exacerbate.
In March 1879, after years of tolerating party atmospheres accompanying the public executions of blacks, Virginia first moved to shroud its execution process in secrecy after almost 1,000 revelers gathered after the hanging of two young black men at New Kent Courthouse for a grand “Gallows Ball” that lasted until daybreak.
Afterward, a mortified General Assembly moved quickly to make hangings private, intending to stop the festival backdrops and remove black influence and traditions from the proceedings.
Most newspapers that year, including the April 2 Petersburg Progress-Index, praised the new statute, reporting that “this (law) shall put an end to all such gallows picnics and jollifications as was witnessed at New Kent Court-house.”
There is little evidence to conclude that crowds gathered to condemn the crimes of the prisoner. On the contrary, the widespread prejudices in the judicial process, from arrest to conviction to execution, were more likely to induce Virginia blacks to recognize a condemned prisoner as a martyr rather than victim, and their purpose was to share and celebrate the prisoner’s future “in the promised land.”
“A negro likes nothing better than to be the central figure, be it a cake-walk or a hanging,” Virginia Penitentiary Physician Dr. Charles Carrington disdainfully told the Medical Society of Virginia on October 25, 1910.
But the new statute had flaws. “The Gallows Ball in New Kent was such a success that the darkies are talking about getting one up in Chesterfield ( on April 25),” reported the April 3, 1879 Alexandria Gazette. “The passage of the bill by the Legislature prohibiting public executions … will not prevent the gallows ball — the new departure in colored circles.”
The Gazette was correct in one respect — the toothless 1879 law had no effect on limiting gatherings at primarily black hangings. Therefore in 1908, the Assembly passed bill No. 398 — “An act to establish a permanent place in the State Penitentiary at Richmond, VA for the execution of state felons upon whom the death penalty has been imposed.” The bill also changed the mode of death from hanging to electrocution and became law July 1, 1908.
Like before, legislators and newspapers around the commonwealth overwhelmingly approved of this new law, which moved executions from open-air hangings accompanied by long speeches and parties to an electric chair in a grim basement in front of a handful of somber white witnesses. The October 14, 1908 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch explained that:
“The publicity, the excitement and the general hurrah-and-holiday air attending the old-time hanging were a positive allurement to the negro. … The electric execution wholly does away with that. … The whole affair is conducted with secrecy and mystery, well calculated to inspire terror in the heart of the superstitious African.”
Since 2015 the General Assembly, the Department of Corrections, and the governor have further acted to conceal execution procedures in even heavier secrecy. This is not to “inspire terror in the heart of the superstitious African” as in 1908 but to hide the processes from the media and the general public and to shield providers from political and public blowback.
Since colonial days, Virginia has executed 1,388 persons, more than any other state. We have shot with a firing squad (1608), gibbeted and “hung in chains” (left on display for months, 1700), burned at the stake (1610, 1737 and 1745), hanged, electrocuted, and drugged — and are still looking for better ways to do it.
Virginia’s current default, lethal injection, calls for the use of pentobarbital or midazolam as a sedative to knock out the condemned prisoner, followed by rocuronium bromide to stop respiration, then potassium chloride to stop the heart.
Since pharmaceutical companies have taken steps to prevent states from obtaining these drugs for capital punishment purposes, Virginia — buoyed by a 2016 law — clandestinely purchased them from an unknown compounding pharmacy that mixes small “made-to-order” batches. It took a Freedom of Information Act request by the Associated Press, reported December 12, to discover that Virginia paid $66,000 for vials of midazolam and potassium chloride. The name of the pharmacy was redacted.
The request also showed that Virginia purchased $340 worth of rocuronium bromide from Cardinal Health, a pharmaceutical wholesaler in Ohio, without the knowledge of the drug’s manufacturer, X-GEN Pharmaceuticals. X-GEN vice president of business strategies Jeff Granger told the AP he was “surprised and concerned” by Cardinal’s sale to Virginia.
Virginia has also concealed not just the drugs but the injection procedures. Under the new protocols, witnesses no longer see the prisoner entering the chamber, so they don’t know when the execution process begins.
This is in direct defiance of the American Bar Association’s 2015 Execution Transparency Resolution, which calls for execution processes to be disseminated in an “open and transparent manner” and to require that those processes be viewable by media and witnesses “from the moment the condemned prisoner enters the execution chamber until the prisoner is declared dead” or the execution is canceled.
While the racial makeup of Virginia’s executions since a death penalty moratorium ended in 1982 is evenly split between black and white (54 black, 54 white, 4 foreign nationals), the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission of Capital Punishment found that a person is three times more likely to be sentenced to death when the victim is white than when the victim is black.
Confederate monuments and slave jails are not Virginia’s only remnants of a racist past. Virginia’s capital punishment process and the secrecy surrounding the death penalty are still mired in Jim Crow, and a reliance on such regressive secrecy, with the nodding approval of a consenting governor, stubbornly prolongs that racist legacy — a legacy that, unlike people, needs to be put to death.
source: RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH