When John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested in the Washington-area sniper case last year, Attorney General John Ashcroft began to push immediately for a trial in Virginia rather than Maryland. Besides his obvious partiality for a jurisdiction that executes prisoners in great numbers, Ashcroft may have known something about American legal history–namely, that Virginia has a historic tradition of executing minors, a tradition that began in the eighteenth century.
Malvo, who was 17 at the time of the murders of which he and Muhammad are accused, is scheduled to go to trial on November 10. Muhammad’s trial began in mid-October.
According to Victor Streib, a professor at Ohio Northern University Law School and author of Death Penalty for Juveniles, there have been thirty-four people executed for crimes committed as minors in Virginia from the colonial period to the present, nearly all of them African-American boys whose victims were white females. Streib’s grim inventory of cases is based on groundbreaking research originally compiled by M. Watt Espy, a self-educated historian from Headland, Alabama, and derived from state Department of Corrections records, newspapers, county histories, proceedings of state and local courts, holdings of historical societies and other listings of executions.
Because it is so hard to win on a death-penalty appeal in Virginia, the state’s sentencing to execution rate for juveniles is the highest in the country: 50 percent compared with runners-up Oklahoma (29 percent), Texas (25 percent), Missouri (25 percent) and South Carolina (14 percent). Although Texas has sentenced and executed more juveniles than any other state over the past decade–one a year, on average–Virginia’s courts are uniquely efficient in moving convicted youths to the electric chair in record time. Streib argues that the Virginia Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit are the keys to the state’s “greased skids.” Both are deeply conservative judicial venues, he points out, with no interest in hearing challenges to “law and order” ideology. (No wonder the Fourth Circuit has become an important source of judicial nominees in the Bush Administration.)
But Virginia does more than execute quickly. It also has the distinction of being the last state to execute a female minor, an African-American “wash girl” named, ironically, Virginia Christian. Back in 1912, when 16-year-old Virginia confessed that she had killed her employer, Ida Belote, in response to accusations that she had stolen a locket and a skirt, the stage was set for a demonstration of white supremacy in a region already bedeviled by sharecropping, debt peonage, Jim Crow laws, disfranchisement and lynching. Newspapers in Hampton and Richmond used the example of Virginia Christian to fan the fires of bigotry and fear among the many white families in that region (and elsewhere) who had black domestic servants in their homes. As late as 1900, domestic service was the single largest category of female employment in the United States, and an increasing number of these women were black, ranging in age from early adolescence to late in life. Some African-American domestics lived with white families; others, like Virginia Christian, slept in their own homes and came to work on a daily basis. Whether live-in or not, the relationship between white matrons and their black “girls” was almost always plagued with inequity, and distrust on both sides.