Capital punishment in Virginia

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Capital punishment is a legal penalty in the U.S. state of Virginia.

Current status[edit]

Legal process[edit]

Muhammad during his time in the military

When the prosecution seeks the death penalty, the sentence is decided by the jury and must be unanimous.

In case of a hung jury during the penalty phase of the trial, a life sentence is issued, even if a single juror opposed death (there is no retrial).[1]

Virginia is the state with the shortest time on average between death sentence and execution (less than 8 years) and has executed 113 offenders since 1976 with only 5 remaining on death row as of June 2017.[2][3] This is in part because state habeas corpus for condemned men are heard by the state supreme court under exclusive original jurisdiction since 1995, immediately after direct review, avoiding any proceeding before the lower courts.[4]

On November 10, 2009, Virginia executed spree killer John Allen Muhammad for the 2002 D.C. sniper attacks during which 17 people were killed. His death sentence was finalized in six years.[3]

The governor has the power of clemency with respect to death sentences.[5]

The method of execution is lethal injection, unless the condemned requests to be electrocuted.[6]

Capital crimes[edit]

Under Virginia's Criminal Code, capital murder is defined as "willful, deliberate, and premeditated" killing involving at least one of the following aggravating factors:[7]

  1. Be committed in the commission of abduction, when such abduction was committed with the intent to extort money or a pecuniary benefit or with the intent to defile the victim of such abduction;
  2. Be committed for hire;
  3. Be committed by a prisoner confined in a state or local correctional facility, or while in the custody of an employee thereof;
  4. Be committed in the commission of robbery or attempted robbery;
  5. Be committed in the commission of, or subsequent to, rape or attempted rape, forcible sodomy or attempted forcible sodomy or object sexual penetration;
  6. Be committed against a law-enforcement officer, even of another state or of the federal government, when such killing is for the purpose of interfering with the performance of his official duties;
  7. Be committed against more than one person as a part of the same act or transaction;
  8. Be committed against more than one person within a three-year period;
  9. Be committed in the commission of or attempted commission of drug trafficking;
  10. Be committed pursuant to the direction or order of one who is engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise;
  11. Be committed against a pregnant woman by one who knows that the woman is pregnant and has the intent to cause the involuntary termination of the woman's pregnancy without a live birth;
  12. Be committed against a person under the age of 14 by a person age 21 or older;
  13. Be committed in the commission of or attempted commission of an act of terrorism;
  14. Be committed against a justice or judge when the killing is for the purpose of interfering with his official duties;
  15. Be committed against a witness in a criminal case for the purpose of interfering with the person's duties in such case.

Modern Era Post-Gregg[edit]

After the Supreme Court of the United States upheld Georgia's "guided discretion" laws in Gregg v. Georgia, Virginia's laws were modified along the same lines. The first person executed after being sentenced to death under these laws was Frank Coppola on August 10, 1982. He was the first of individual executed by the state in the modern era.

The electric chair continued to be solely used until 1994, when legislation was enacted giving inmates the choice of lethal injection or the electric chair, with lethal injection the default method if no choice was made. Seven inmates have since opted for the Virginia electric chair; the most recent was Robert Gleason on January 16, 2013. Former Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has also stated that he opposes the option of the electric chair, but he did not move to drop it as an option while in office.

Executions are carried out at Greensville Correctional Center near Jarratt, Virginia; the men's death row is located at the Sussex I State Prison near Waverly, Virginia and the women's death row is at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.[8] State law specifies that at least six citizens who are not employees of the Department of Corrections must be present to serve as witnesses to the execution. Since Governor George Allen signed an executive order on the matter in 1994, relatives of the homicide victim(s) in the case have the right to witness the execution. Relatives of the condemned inmate are barred from being present.

Joseph Roger O'Dell III was executed in Virginia in 1997 for a rape and murder. Prosecuting attorney argued in court in 1998 that if posthumous DNA results exonerated O'Dell, "it would be shouted from the rooftops that ... Virginia executed an innocent man." The state prevailed, and the evidence was destroyed.[9]

Early history[edit]

The first recorded execution in the future United States took place in 1608 at the Jamestown Colony in Virginia. Captain George Kendall was executed for treason.[10] Hanging was the predominant method for executions before 1909. Other methods had been used during this time — three people convicted of piracy in 1700 were gibbeted, four pirates were hanged in chains in 1720, and a female slave was burned in 1737. From 1910 until 1994, the electric chair was used for all executions.

On February 2, 1951, four African Americans (of the Martinsville Seven) were executed for rape in one case and another was executed for murder in an unrelated case—the most executions held on a single day in Virginia. On February 5, 1951, the remaining three defendants in the rape case were executed.[11] The case of the Martinsville Seven led to scrutiny of racial bias in death penalties for rape in Virginia. Only Black men were executed for rape, de jure through the end of the Civil War, and de facto since the introduction of the electric chair.[12]

The youngest person to have been executed in Virginia was Percy Ellis, who at the age of 16 was electrocuted on March 15, 1916. Only two women, Virginia Christian in 1912 and Teresa Lewis in 2010, have been put to death by the state since it took over executions from the counties. The last execution for rape took place on February 17, 1961.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "§ 19.2-264.4. Sentence proceeding.". Retrieved June 4, 2017. 
  2. ^ "VIRGINIA'S EXECUTION HISTORY". Retrieved June 4, 2017. "VIRGINIA’S DEATH ROW INMATES". Retrieved June 4, 2017. 
  3. ^ a b "Conviction to Execution "Takes Too Long"". Retrieved March 22, 2016. 
  4. ^ "Code of Virginia - § 8.01-654. When and by whom writ granted; what petition to contain.". Retrieved March 22, 2016. 
  5. ^ "Article V. Executive; Section 12. Executive clemency". Retrieved June 4, 2017. 
  6. ^ "§ 53.1-234. Transfer of prisoner; how death sentence executed; who to be present.". Retrieved June 4, 2017. 
  7. ^ Virginia Code § 18.2-31.
  8. ^ Facts about Virginia's Death Row. NBC4 Washington. Tuesday November 10, 2009. Retrieved on May 29, 2012.
  9. ^ Romano, Lois. (December 12, 2003 ). "When DNA Meets Death Row, It's the System That's Tested", Washington Post
  10. ^ "Part I: History of the Death Penalty". Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved 27 October 2013. 
  11. ^ Jim Iovino, "Facts About Virginia's Death Row", NBC, 10 November 2009.
  12. ^ Eric W. Rise, "Race, Rape, and Radicalism: The Case of the Martinsville Seven, 1949–1951", Journal of Southern History, LVIII(3), August 1992; accessed via JStor.

External links[edit]