Capital punishment in Virginia

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Capital punishment was abolished in Virginia on March 24, 2021, when Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill into law. The law will take effect on July 1, 2021, but no executions will take place before that date. Virginia is the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, and the first Southern state in United States history to do so.[1][2]

The first execution in what would become the United States was carried out in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608, when Captain George Kendall was executed in Jamestown for spying. Since then, Virginia has executed more than 1,300 people, the most of any other state.[3] In the modern, post-Gregg era, Virginia conducted 113 executions, the second most in the country, behind only Texas.[4] The last execution in the state was in July 2017, when William Morva was executed via lethal injection for murder.[5]

Early history[edit]

The first recorded execution in the United States took place in 1608 at the Jamestown Colony in Virginia. Captain George Kendall was executed for treason.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] The last execution for rape took place on February 17, 1961.

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, were put to death by the state, when it took over executions from the counties.

Modern era post-Gregg[edit]

John Allen Muhammad during his time in the military

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 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 decision was made. Seven inmates opted for the Virginia electric chair; the last to do so was Robert Gleason on January 16, 2013. Former Governor Tim Kaine has also stated that he opposes the option of the electric chair, but did not move to drop it as an option while in office.

Executions were carried out at Greensville Correctional Center near Jarratt, Virginia; the men's death row was located at the Sussex I State Prison near Waverly, Virginia and the women's death row was at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.[9] The execution chamber moved from the former Virginia State Penitentiary to Greensville in 1991.[10] On August 3, 1998, the male death row moved from Mecklenburg Correctional Center to Sussex I.[11]

In 1992, Roger Keith Coleman was executed by the state for the 1981 rape and murder of his sister-in-law Wanda McCoy. Coleman's case drew national and worldwide attention before and after his execution because of his repeated claims of innocence: Time magazine featured Coleman on its May 18, 1992, cover. After his death, his was the second case nationally in which DNA evidence was analyzed of an executed man. In January 2006, Virginia Governor Mark Warner announced that testing of DNA evidence had conclusively proven that Coleman was guilty of the crime.[12] On November 10, 2009, Virginia executed spree killer John Allen Muhammad for the 2002 D.C. sniper attacks during which he killed 10 people. He was tried in Virginia rather than the District of Columbia in order to establish an impartial jury pool, and his death sentence was finalized in six years.[13]

The last person to be sentenced to death in Virginia was Mark E. Lawlor, sentenced June 23, 2011, by the Honorable Randy I. Bellows of Fairfax County Circuit Court. In 2020 however, Lawlor won a federal appeal which required a retrial of the sentencing phase, and the new commonwealth attorney chose to reduce the sentence to life in prison without parole citing their personal beliefs regarding capital punishment.[14]


In February 2021, the Virginia General Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty, and Governor Ralph Northam signed the bill into law on March 24, 2021. The bill will take effect on July 1, 2021.[15] Only two people were on death row in Virginia at the time of the abolition: Anthony Juniper and Thomas A. Porter.[16] Their sentences were commuted to life without parole.[17] The last execution in Virginia occurred in July 2017, when William Morva was executed for two murders he committed in 2006. The daughter of one of his victims supported the bill to end capital punishment, calling the practice outdated, ineffective, and failing to provide her any closure.[18]

Legal process[edit]

Before abolition, when the prosecution intended to seek the death penalty, the sentence was decided by the jury and had to be unanimous. In case of a hung jury during the penalty phase of the trial, a life sentence was issued, even if a single juror opposed death (there was no retrial).[19] The governor held the power of clemency with respect to death sentences.[20] The method of execution up until abolition was lethal injection, unless the condemned requested electrocution instead.[21]

State law specified that at least six citizens who are not employees of the Department of Corrections were required to serve as witnesses to the execution. Since Governor George Allen signed an executive order on the matter in 1994, relatives of the victim(s) in the case had the right to witness the execution. Relatives of the condemned inmate were barred from being present. Virginia was the state with the shortest time on average between death sentence and execution (less than 8 years).

Capital crimes[edit]

Before abolition in 2021, murder was the only crime for which the death penalty was applicable in Virginia. Under Virginia Criminal Code, capital murder was defined as "willful, deliberate, and premeditated" killing involving at least one of the following aggravating factors:[22]

  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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schneider, Gregory S. (March 24, 2021). "Virginia abolishes the death penalty, becoming the first Southern state to ban its use". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on March 24, 2021. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  2. ^ Kelley, Alexandra (March 24, 2021). "Virginia officially first Southern state to abolish the death penalty". The Hill. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  3. ^ "Virginia's Execution History". Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP). Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  4. ^ "Virginia | History of the Death Penalty". Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved March 24, 2021.
  5. ^ "Virginia may be first in south to abolish death penalty and abandon 'legalized lynching'". The Guardian. February 2, 2021.
  6. ^ "Part I: History of the Death Penalty". Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved October 27, 2013.
  7. ^ Jim Iovino, "Facts About Virginia's Death Row", NBC, November 10, 2009.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Facts about Virginia's Death Row. NBC4 Washington. Tuesday November 10, 2009. Retrieved on May 29, 2012.
  10. ^ Richardson, Selden. The Tri-State Gang in Richmond: Murder and Robbery in the Great Depression (True Crime Series). The History Press, 2012. ISBN 1609495233, 9781609495237. p. 203[permanent dead link].
  11. ^ "Facts about Virginia's Death Row" (Archive). NBC4 Washington. Tuesday November 10, 2009. Retrieved on May 29, 2012.
  12. ^ Maria Gold and Michael D. Shear, "DNA Tests Confirm Guilt of Executed Man", The Washington Post, January 12, 2006; Quote: "The testing in Coleman's case marks only the second time nationwide that DNA tests have been performed after an execution. In 2000, tests ordered by a Georgia judge in the case of Ellis W. Felker, who was executed in 1996, were inconclusive."; accessed May 26, 2017
  13. ^ "Conviction to Execution "Takes Too Long"". Archived from the original on April 7, 2016. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  14. ^ Jackman, Tom. "Va. man sentenced to death in 2011 gets new hearing, and new prosecutor agrees to life sentence". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved January 17, 2021.
  15. ^ Carlisle, Madeleine (February 9, 2021). "Why It's So Significant That Virginia Looks Set To Abolish the Death Penalty". Time. Retrieved February 20, 2021.
  16. ^ "Since 1608, Virginia has executed more people than any other state. It may now abolish the death penalty". The Virginian-Pilot. January 31, 2021.
  17. ^ "Virginia all but certain to become first southern state to abolish death penalty". The Guardian. February 5, 2021.
  18. ^ "'It's just another person dead': Fight to end Virginia's death penalty gaining momentum". WSLS-TV. February 2, 2021.
  19. ^ "§ 19.2-264.4. Sentence proceeding". Retrieved June 4, 2017.
  20. ^ "Article V. Executive; Section 12. Executive clemency". Retrieved June 4, 2017.
  21. ^ "§ 53.1-234. Transfer of prisoner; how death sentence executed; who to be present". Retrieved June 4, 2017.
  22. ^ Virginia Code § 18.2-31.

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