Capital punishment in Virginia

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Capital punishment is legal in the U.S. State of Virginia. In what is now the Commonwealth of Virginia, the first execution in the future United States was carried out in 1608. It was the first of 1,388 executions, the highest total of any state in the union. The state has also executed the third largest number of convicts in the United States (after Texas and Oklahoma) since re-legalization following Gregg v. Georgia in 1976.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.

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 in Jarratt, Virginia, and death row is located at the Sussex State Prison near Waverly, Virginia. 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.

A legal precedent in America was created after the U.S. Supreme Court case Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). It ruled that executing the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. Daryl Atkins had been involved in a murder and robbery. He was "mildly mentally retarded" and had an IQ of 59. The ruling stayed the executions of several death row inmates. Atkins was later judged to have an IQ of over 70 and was kept on death row in Virginia until the discovery of an error committed by prosecutors preparing for his trial led to a plea bargain in which Atkins' death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

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.[4]

As in other US states, people who are under 18 at the time of commission of the capital crime [5] are constitutionally precluded from being executed.

Public opinion[edit]

A 2001 poll of Virginians found that 69.5% supported the use of the death penalty, with 25.2% opposed.[citation needed]

Capital offenses[edit]

Under Virginia's Criminal Code, the following offenses carry the possibility of death:

  • Willful, deliberate and premeditated murder in the commission of abduction,
  • Willful, deliberate and premeditated murder during a robbery or attempted robbery
  • Willful, deliberate and premeditated murder by a person engaged in a continuing Criminal Drug Enterprise
  • Willful, deliberate and premeditated murder in the commission of rape or attempted rape or sodomy, or attempted sodomy, or object sexual penetration
  • Willful, deliberate and premeditated murder of a person under the age of 14 by a person over the age of 21
  • Contract killing
  • Willful, deliberate and premeditated murder of a law enforcement officer
  • Willful, deliberate and premeditated murder of more than one person (within a three year time frame)
  • Willful, deliberate and premeditated murder of a pregnant woman
  • Willful, deliberate and premeditated murder by an inmate while in a correctional facility.
  • Willful, deliberate and premeditated murder committed during an act of terrorism.
  • Willful, deliberate and premeditated murder of a judge, juror, or witness

Before the 20th century, along with murder and rape, a variety of offenses could merit a death sentence:

  • Treason against Virginia, defined as "levying war against [the state], or adhering to its enemies, giving them aid and comfort, or establishing or causing to be established, without authority of the legislature, any government within its limits, separate from the existing government, holding or executing in such a usurped government, any office, place or appointment, swearing allegiance or professing fidelity to it, or resisting the execution of the laws under colour of authority derived from or protection afforded by it"[6]
  • Arson
  • Burglary
  • horse rustling
  • Robbery

As Attorney General, Governor Bob McDonnell supported expanding the death penalty to participants in a homicide other than the "triggerman," and to those who kill a judge or a witness.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Part I: History of the Death Penalty". Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved 27 October 2013. 
  2. ^ Jim Iovino,"[Facts About Virginia's Death Row]", NBC, 10 November 2009.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Romano, Lois. (December 12, 2003 ). "When DNA Meets Death Row, It's the System That's Tested", Washington Post
  5. ^ Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)
  6. ^ Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia Division of Purchases and Supply, 1848, pp. 94–95 
  7. ^ Press Release

External links[edit]