Capital Punishment in Virginia

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One of the most controversial and debated issues is capital punishment. Washington became the twentieth state to eliminate the death penalty[1]. One of the reasons which influenced the state to abolish this practice is due to the finding that race played a crucial role in determining executions of the convicts. Racial discrimination originated during the formulation of the slave law in the seventeenth century in Virginia. The study regarding the steps made by the Virginia Council reveals that the justice of these councils was a predecessor of the justice system which authorized slavery based on racial divisions. Virginia served as an element of capitalism and having received the land grant by King James I to promote the Virginia company; the investors had an objective to amass economic profit in England. The significance of this situation is that it perpetuates the idea that the wealthy in the society always focus on gaining profit for themselves disregarding the fundamental human rights.

            Prior to the Civil War, the slaves and servants were perceived to be personal property, an aspect which affected even their descendants and could be sold and used like others. The laws did not distinguish sexes although some of them focused solely on women. In the beginning, most laws only constituted indentured servants although they later began reflecting the distinctions between the servants and slaves. After Virginia became the first state to include slavery in the laws, it added specific laws which only addressed servant and slave women including their children. Notably, the women servants who bore children were liable for punishment involving two years servitude with the churchwardens. Additionally, another law focused on the birthrights of children who were born of “Negro” women, an aspect which laid the foundation for the continued practice of slavery even after the slave trade was abolished. The law stated, “All children borne in this country shalbe held bond [slave] or free only according to the condition of the mother”[2]. The law also forbid Christians from committing fornication with the Negroes introducing a double fine punishment for any Christian who would be found guilty of breaking this law. The emphasis that the black slaves did not equal the whites laid the foundation for the racism that is persistent to date. According to research, “In aggravated murder cases, jurors are more than four times more likely to impose a death sentence if the defendant is black”[3].  Runaway slaves were a common problem for the landowners in Virginia and to curb this, the law provided that if a white person assisted the black slaves to run away and they went completely missing or died, the responsible person would have to “pay fower [four] thousand five hundred pounds of tobacco . . . or fower years service for every negroe soe lost or dead”[4]. In some instances, the whites and blacks escaped together even though the punishments for the latter were harsher and included death. Although most of the servants died, the “planters still profited because they received a head-right of fifty acres of land from the colonial government for every newly purchased servant”[5]. On the basis of the advantages and benefits of the New World Virginia, the poor England folk came as indentured servants.

            Homicide, which entails the act of murdering a person, does not always violate the values and beliefs of a society. Judging from the social and legal context of homicide, it is justified based on the particular conditions of a situation. As a result, various societies approved executions which were accidental while others permitted killings made out of human sacrifices. Virginia, however, allowed the masters to kills slaves who were rebellious. According to the Law, “if any slave resist his master (or other by his masters order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accompted a ffelony,..”[6]. On this note, slave rebellions constantly caused fear primarily because their population was significant in the region. It is from this practice that the death penalty is perceived to be a means of punishing the offenders where “Capital punishment remains legal in 30 states”[7]. The law that authorized force to suppress rebellious slaves, it stated that “many negroes have lately beene, and now are out in rebellion in sundry parts of this country, and that noe meanes have yet beene found for the apprehension and suppression of them from whome many mischiefs of a very dangerous consequence may arise to the country if either other negroes”[8]. Moreover, the law did not allow a person of color to testify against a white Christian. After the rebellion, “The Algonquian chief who had led the Indian… mounted another surprise attack in 1644 and killed about five hundred Virginia colonists in two days”[9]. The attack was a single blow unlike the previous series of attacks and had limited impact on the way of life of the settlers. The daily routine soon resumed for a majority of the colonialists.

            In summary, the Virginia laws during the 1660s and 1670s was the struggle between the rich and the poor. The significance of this event is that today people enjoy the freedom of speech and there has been a certain level of equality among different races. However, racism remains a dominant issue which leads to more executions of black convicts, a point which questions the relevance of capital punishment.


Arber, Edward. 1910. Travels and Works of Captain John Smith. Edinburgh.

Johnson, Kirk. 2018. Washington State Supreme Court Deems Death Penalty Unconstitutional. October 11.

n.d. The American Promise.

[1] (Kirk Johnson, “Washington State Supreme Court Deems Death Penalty Unconstitutional”, 2018, para 1)


(Edward Arber, “Law Making Slave Status Inherited from the Mother, 1662,” Handout Set Of Documents, 1910, p. 2)


Ibid. para 11


(Edward Arber, “Law Punishing Runaway Servants, 1661,” Handout Set Of Documents, 1910, p. 2)


(The American Promise 57)


(Edward Arber, “Law Specifies That Baptism Does Not Free Slaves, 1667,” Handout Set Of Documents, 1910, p. 3)


Ibid para 5


(Edward Arber, “Law Authorizes Force to Suppress Rebellious Slaves, Indians, and Servants, 1672,” Handout Set Of Documents, 1910, p. 3


(The American Promise 61)

November 13, 2023

Human Rights

Subject area:

Murder Death Penalty

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Expertise Death Penalty
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