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Capital punishment in Virginia: Map


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Capital punishment is legal in the U.S.marker Commonwealth of Virginiamarker. In what is now the Commonwealth of Virginia, the first execution in the future United States was carried out in 1607. It was the first of 1,371 executions, the highest total of any state in the Union. For a full list of those executed since 1976 see the list of individuals executed in Virginia.


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 1909 until 1994, the electric chair was used for all but one execution (that of Joel Payne on April 9, 1909). On February 2, 1951, four African Americans 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. 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 one woman, Virginia Christian, has been put to death by the state since it took over executions from the counties. She was put to death in 1912 for the murder of her boss.


After the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker 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 100 individuals executed by the state, the second highest total post-Gregg behind Texas.

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. Five inmates have since opted for the Virginia electric chair; the most recent was Larry "Bill" Elliott on November 17, 2009. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has also stated that he opposes the option of the electric chair, but he has not moved to drop it as an option.

Executions are carried out at Greensville Correctional Centermarker in Jarratt, Virginiamarker, and death row is located at the Sussex State Prison near Waverly, Virginiamarker. 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 the United States was created after the U.S. Supreme Court case Atkins v. Virginia, . 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 did stay the executions of several people on death row. Atkins was later judged to have an IQ of over 70 and remains on death row in Virginia.

Public opinion

A 2001 poll of Virginians found that 69.5% supported the use of the death penalty, with 25.2% opposed. The same poll found that if given the option of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, support for the death penalty dropped to 45.2%, with 50% supporting life without parole.

Capital offenses

Before the 20th century, along with murder and rape, a variety of offenses could merit a death sentence — arson, burglary, horse rustling, robbery.

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


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