“Todos los cristianos y hombres de buena voluntad están llamadas hoy a trabajar no sólo por la abolición de la pena de muerte, sino también para mejorar las condiciones de las cárceles, en el respeto de la dignidad humana de las personas privadas de libertad.” - Papa Francisco
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. It was the first of what would be 1,389 executions. Hanging was the predominant, although not only, method for executions before 1909. Other methods had been used during this time, including gibbeting and burning. 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.
March 2021 Update: On Wednesday, March 24, 2021, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill to abolish Virginia's death penalty into law, making the commonwealth the 23rd sate to repeal the death penalty and the first southern state to do so.
For more information and ways to get involved, contact your state's organizations:
The Virginia Catholic Conference is the public policy advocacy organization representing Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, Diocese of Richmond, and Bishop Paul Loverde, Diocese of Arlington, on matters before the Virginia General Assembly, the U.S. Congress, and the state and federal administrations and their agencies.
Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP) is a statewide citizens’ organization dedicated to educating the public about alternatives to the death penalty.
Social Action Linking Together (SALT) is a network of persons in Virginia embracing the principle that “the justice of a society can be measured by how the most vulnerable members of that society are faring and being treated.” This principle can be found in all the great religious traditions and inspires SALT members to propose and shape fair public social policies through the education of policy makers and advocacy for the poor and powerless.