Does Virginia Have the Death Penalty?

According to the historical record, Virginia was the site of the first instance of capital punishment in the British North American colonies, when George Kendall—a founding member of the original Jamestown colony—was put to death by firing squad in 1608. Since then, more executions have occurred in Virginia than in any other state, and in the “modern era” beginning after the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1976 on Gregg v. Georgia, it ranks third in total executions by state, behind only Texas and Oklahoma.

However, recent changes in the makeup of Virginia’s state legislature have had a seismic shift in the state’s laws regarding capital punishment. As a result, the answer to the question “Does Virginia have the death penalty?” is now: “Not anymore.”

Capital Crimes in Virginia Prior to 2021

Up until 2021, there was only one capital crime defined in the Code of Virginia—specifically, that of capital murder. Under the law as it existed prior to Governor Ralph Northam’s order, someone over the age of 18 could be sentenced to death upon being convicted for committing a premeditated, deliberate, and willful killing under any of the following circumstances:

  • The murder occurred during an attempted or actual robbery, rape, abduction with intent to extort money or defile the targeted person, or act of terrorism
  • The defendant was imprisoned in a correctional facility or acting as a hired killer at the time of the murder
  • The defendant killed more than one person in a single criminal act, or more than one person within a continuous three-year period
  • The targeted person was a law enforcement officer, fire marshal, court judge, or subpoenaed witness in a criminal proceeding
  • The targeted person was pregnant, and the defendant both knew about and intended to cause the involuntary termination of that pregnancy through their actions
  • The defendant was at least 21 years old, and the targeted person was younger than 14

Following a conviction for capital murder, a second proceeding would occur to determine whether the court should sentence that defendant to death or to life imprisonment. This determination was based on factors like the risk the defendant might pose as a further danger to society and the inhumane nature of their actions. The death penalty could only be enforced if there was a unanimous decision from the jury.

The Abolition of the Death Penalty in Virginia

The last person to be executed in the Commonwealth of Virginia was William Morva, who was convicted of murdering two people in 2006 and executed by lethal injection on July 6, 2017. The last person to be sentenced to death in the state was Mark E. Lawlor, who was initially given the death penalty in 2011 but later had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment following an appeal in 2020.

On March 24, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill passed by the Virginia General Assembly to abolish capital punishment across the Commonwealth, with the two people on death row at the time having their sentences commuted to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. So, as of July 1, 2021, Virginia is the 23rd state in the union to completely do away with the death penalty, and the first state in what is traditionally considered the “Southern United States” to do so.