The End Of Virginia’s Death Penalty

by | Mar 17, 2021 | VIRGINIA POLITICS

Thanks to Governor Ralph Northam and the General Assembly, Virginia’s long tradition of imposing the death penalty is headed for a permanent end in the near future. We look back at the history to see why this is a positive development for the commonwealth.

With Governor Ralph Northam expected to sign a bill that passed through the General Assembly earlier this year, abolition of the death penalty in Virginia seems all but certain.

“It’s really a revolution in criminal justice reform for Virginia, because we’ve executed more people in Virginia than in any other state, including Texas,” said Dale Brumfield, field director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP) and an expert on capital punishment in Virginia.

“We’ve executed 1,390 people since 1608, so for Virginia, the former Capitol of the Confederacy, the most killing state in the United States, to end it is just a jaw-dropping revolution in criminal justice reform.”

As Virginia moves into a new era of criminal justice reform, Brumfield reflects on a painful past.

1608 – Captain George Kendall is executed by firing squad for treason in colonial Jamestown.

1632 – Jane Champion becomes the first woman executed in the state of Virginia.

“She was a married woman, but she had an affair with another colonist in Jamestown, and she got pregnant by him,” Brumfield said. “So she was facing double jeopardy: she got pregnant out of wedlock by another man, and she was having an affair, so she was in a no-win situation.” 

Champion concealed the birth of her child, which was a capital offense in and of itself at the time. She was eventually convicted for infanticide, but Brumfield says that there is compelling historical evidence to suggest the child was stillborn. As for the man she had an affair with?

“[He] was supposedly scheduled to be hanged also, but there’s no record of him ever being hanged,” Brumfield said. “They don’t think he ever was.”

So began a long and painful history of unjust executions in Virginia.

“Since then, Virginia just started executing like sons of bitches,” Brumfield said. “We just kept killing and killing and killing. Throughout the colonial era, Virginia executed 500 slaves before emancipation. That accounts for 86 percent of all slave executions nationwide.” 

According to Brumfield, there were 66 crimes that counted as capital offenses for enslaved people. “They couldn’t turn around without committing a capital crime back in those days,” he said.

1787 – Virginia executes a 12 year-old enslaved boy for murder. Virginia also executed a 13 year-old enslaved boy for arson.

The state-sponsored killings continued through the Civil War and Jim Crow era.

“The Jim Crow era was an interesting era for Virginia and the death penalty, in that the link to lynching becomes very apparent,” Brumfield said.

During that period, there were about 100 lynchings in Virginia. Though it sounds like a lot, the number is relatively low compared to states like Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas, which saw 400 to 500 each. Brumfield says this is in part because the lynchings went by another name in Virginia: state executions for capital offenses.

“One of the reasons was Virginia got so good at catching, convicting, and executing young Black men for crimes against whites, usually against white women,” he said. “They could do it so fast that it was legal lynching.”

1908 – Virginia begins use of the electric chair for executions. Of the first 100 people executed in it from 1908 to 1920, 87 were Black – the electric chair became a “tangible symbol of white supremacy.” 

In these trials, Black men were accused of crimes ranging from rape to scaring a white schoolgirl (attempted criminal assault, officially). Most of the time, these men had no legal counsel. Often, they were mentally disabled, or their conviction relied on the testimony of a child, if there were eyewitnesses at all. 

“The trials would last less than an hour,” Brumfield said. “The jury would be out five or six minutes and would come back with a verdict of death. Thirty days later, that Black man is put to death.” 

Of the 89 women who were executed in all of Virginia’s history, 11 were white, and the rest were Black. Of those 11 white women, nine were executed prior to 1800.

“White women were like unicorns on death row.”

1962 – Electric chair “loses elegance”; Virginia places de facto moratorium on executions.

1972 – US Supreme Court rules that death penalty is unconstitutional.

1976 – US Supreme Court reverses itself, allowing for states to resume executions with mandates implemented on how they must apply capital punishment.

1982 – Virginia resumes executions with Frank Coppola, a white man.

1982-2017 – Virginia executes 113 people, second only to Texas during the same time frame. 

“It’s a horrible history,” Brumfield said. “Any reasonable person would look at Virginia’s execution history and just be outraged by it.” 

So why, after 413 years of capital punishment, are talks about its abolition possible now? Brumfield says a few factors converged at just the right time.

“Unfortunately, it took the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to shine a spotlight on criminal justice reform and Black Lives Matter,” he said. The BLM movement played a huge role in highlighting the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, of which capital punishment is a key part.

Weirdly, Brumfield says, Northam’s blackface scandal also played a significant role.

“That made governor Northam dedicated to removing racial disparities from our laws and statutes in Virginia,” he said. “When he came out that day out of nowhere, and said ‘I’m supporting abolishing the death penalty in Virginia this General Assembly session,’ it caught us all off guard. But what a happy way to be caught off guard, to have the governor come out and say that and be actively involved in pushing this legislation through the General Assembly.”

Lastly, the Trump administration’s execution at the federal level of 13 people in the last six months of his presidency was eye-opening to people, Brumfield said.

“Many people were horrified by that assembly line of executions going on.”

Brumfield said that the ultimate decision to abolish the death penalty by the Virginia legislature would not have been possible without the advocacy of several groups besides VADP, including the Virginia Interfaith Center and the ACLU of Virginia. 

When Brumfield joined VADP four years ago, his first task was to talk to Republican and Libertarian groups around the state about the death penalty, “about the process and how screwed up and bloated and corrupted it was.” That’s over now, though VADP will continue to exist for at least a year to defend the decision if need be.

“I kind of worked myself right out of a job,” Brumfield said.

Top Photo: Florida Department of Corrections/Doug Smith. Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Kate Seltzer

Kate Seltzer

I'm a sophomore political science and communications major at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I like mac n' cheese and the color green. I spend an inordinate amount of time obsessively consuming all forms of media.

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