Old Dominion holds the infamous record of the most persons executed by a state in US history. In what is now the Commonwealth of Virginia, the first execution was carried out in the colony of Virginia in 1608. Captain George Kendall was executed in the Jamestown colony for spying for Spain. It was the first of what would be 1,384 executions.
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 In 1951, seven 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.
After the 1972 Furman US Supreme Court decision, which annulled most states’ death penalty statutes, Virginia rewrote its statute and reinstated the death penalty in 1975.
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.
There have been a number of high profile death penalty cases in Virginia since 2000, some of which have helped further the cause of abolition statewide, as well as in the US. One of these was the case of Daryl Atkins, who was sentenced to death for the abduction and murder of Eric Nesbitt. Atkins appealed his sentence, claiming that his intellectual disability made him ineligible for execution. Atkins’ appeal was heard by the Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), and the Court held that the execution of “mentally retarded” defendants is unconstitutional. Another well-known case was that of the so-called “DC Snipers” John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. Both were convicted of a shooting spree in the DC area in 2002. Although the crime happened in Maryland and Washington, DC, as well as Virginia, the first trials were held in Virginia, in part, because the commonwealth allowed the execution of juveniles. Malvo was 17 at the time of the crimes. Muhammad was executed in 2009, and Malvo is serving a sentence of life in prison without parole.
CMN State Spotlight – April 2014
“Since the 1970s, 144 persons convicted and sentenced to death in the United States have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence; the 144 spent an average of 10 years on death row. If these victims of a faulty justice system had been convicted in Virginia, many of them would have been executed before evidence of their innocence came to light.”
CMN State Spotlight – March 2012
“Since the resumption of capital punishment in the late 1970s following a de facto moratorium imposed by the courts, Virginia has executed 109 people, second only to Texas during that time. The average time between conviction and execution in Virginia is less than eight years, by far the shortest in the nation. Since the 1970s, 140 persons convicted and sentenced to death in the United States have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.”