Virginia is one of the most well-known states in the United States. It is one that has existed since the earliest days of European settlement in the USA and has many iconic associations. It is a state that has a complex and fascinating history.
One element of its history is the death penalty. The death penalty is a divisive subject for people across the US with some states not only having the death penalty but actively supporting it whilst others has outlawed it as a form of punishment.
So, if you have ever wondered does Virginia have the death penalty then this article will answer that question for you.
Does Virginia Have The Death Penalty?
So let’s answer the simplest question first – does Virginia have the death penalty?
The simple answer is that no, Virginia has not had the death penalty since July 2021 when Governor Ralph Northam abolished the death penalty.
Northam, a Democrat elected on a wide variety of policies had for years wanted to abolish the death penalty and his chance came in 2021.
Virginia, as you’d expect from one of America’s most historic state, has a long history associated with the death penalty and it is worth looking over this history if we are to understand why the death penalty was abolished and whether or not it could make a return.
The History Of The Death Penalty In Virginia
Virginia was first colonised by Europeans in 1607 when colonists from England decided to erect the first permanent colony in North America.
There had been previous attempts by the English to colonise North America but the colony of Virginia would prove to be the first successful one.
Executions in Virginia followed not long after colonisation; the colony was still very young when it executed its first convicted criminal in 1608, only a year after the colony was first established.
The man in question was Captain George Kendall, who had been arrested and convicted of spying.
Kendall had in fact been one of the very first founders of the colony and had been instrumental in helping it be built.
He was a member of Virginia’s then governing council and yet in 1608 it came to light that he was apparently spying for the Spanish King.
This was of course a serious charge and despite the fact that it seemed to be based on hearsay evidence from the local blacksmith, who Kendall had gotten into a fight with, he was convicted and executed by firing squad.
Kendall was the first person executed in Virginia and it is believed the first European to be executed in the North American continent.
Kendall’s execution was the first in Virginia, but it was far from the last.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries men were executed for piracy, a crime that was a scourge for many of the earliest colonists because it would disrupt their ability to effectively trade and to get the supplies they needed in order to survive.
Slaves who were found to have either run away or acted against their master’s wishes were also often executed.
Attitudes towards African Americans particularly affected the rate at which juries and the police would convict and execute them.
Even after the end of slavery, prejudices remained amongst the predominantly white juries and law enforcement.
Whilst many African Americans were executed throughout Virginia’s history, very few women have ever been executed – indeed, only two women were ever executed and only one African American woman, Virginia Christian who was executed for the murder of her employer in 1912.
Christian apparently had received a great deal of abuse from her elderly employer Ida Belote.
During one particularly fierce argument, Christian struck out in fear for her life and then suffocated Belote for fear that having struck her she would be arrested.
Christian then stole Belote’s purse and ran. She was later apprehended by the police and confessed to hitting Belote.
Despite the circumstances of the case, Christian was sentenced to be executed by the electric chair.
With a lynch mob outside the courtroom, it is hardly surprising. It is also not surprising that the former Confederate soldier and then Governor, William Hodges Mann did not commute Christian’s sentence to life imprisonment.
Instead, Christian was electrocuted on the 16th of August 1912 at the age of 17.
Perhaps the most controversial case to involve African American defendants being executed was that of the Martinsville Seven, seven African American men executed in 1951 for the alleged rape of a white woman in 1949.
The trials were notoriously rushed and, as many people pointed out, Virginia would only ever execute black men for rape and not white men. All seven were executed.
The even became so notorious that a decade later Virginia would see its last execution for rape in 1961.
Governor Northam would eventually issue posthumous pardons to all seven men, making clear that the pardon was not related directly to whether the men were innocent or not but rather because they had not been allowed due process.
Executions, as they were across the US were abolished for part of the 1970s and in the case of Virginia, as it was with many other states, the death penalty was eventually brought back.
The first person executed after the return of the death penalty was a former police officer name Frank J Coppola.
Yet perhaps the two most famous executions from the 1980s onwards were the cases of Roger Keith Coleman and John Allen Muhammad.
Coleman had in 1981 committed the rape and murder of his sister-in-law Wanda McCoy.
Coleman was nearly from the off considered a suspect due to the fact that he had previously been convicted of attempted rape and it was clear that there was no forced entry meaning McCoy knew her attacker.
Coleman’s brutal assault and murder of McCoy, which included nearly decapitated her, inflamed people throughout Virginia and Coleman was sentenced to be executed in 1982.
However, in 1992 whilst still on death row Coleman’s claims of innocence attracted some support and he was even featured on the cover of Time magazine.
However, Coleman was executed. In 2006 DNA testing conclusively proved that Coleman had committed the crime and many felt that justice had truly been served.
However, Coleman’s case wasn’t the only controversial execution in recent memory. That of John Allen Muhammad, the man behind the 2002 DC snipper attack.
Muhammad, a former sergeant in the US Army had converted to Islam decades before and had been a committed member of the Nation of Islam group.
It was claimed that Muhammad wanted to model himself on Bin Laden and that this may have been behind his murder of ten innocent people in October 2002.
Despite his crimes happening in the District of Columbia, it was argued that Muhammad would not be able to get a fair trial there and so he was transported to Virginia where he was found guilty and eventually executed in 2009.
The final execution to occur in the state would be that of William Morva in 2017, who had been found guilty of two murders in 2006.
Morva’s execution is so far Virginia’s last execution – however the state has abolished the death penalty in the past so the question as to whether or not it may someday return in an open one.
Why It Is Important To Know About The Death Penalty In Virginia
Virginia is one of the oldest states in the United States. It has existed longer than the US and is part of the concept of America.
This is why understanding its attitude towards the death penalty is so important – because it ensures that we can understand why there are so many opposing sides in the debate on capital punishment.
It allows us to understand why there are many people who support the death penalty and many who oppose it.
Only by looking at the evidence for and against capital punishment can any true consensus emerge on the issue and the US become a far more peaceful and united country than it currently is.