How Virginia’s Death Penalty Finally Ended

The commonwealth was once the epicenter of executions. Now the first former Confederate state has abandoned the practice. How a small group of activists helped turn the tide against capital punishment.

On March 24, Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in Virginia. “The practice is fundamentally inequitable,” Northam said. “It is inhumane. It is ineffective.”

Northam’s signature makes Virginia the 23rd state to abolish executions, following New Hampshire (2019) and Washington (2018). But abolition in Virginia is a much bigger deal than that. Virginia is the first Confederate state to embrace abolition. Beyond that, Virginia has historically been a leader in the use of the death penalty as well as slavery, lynching, and eugenics. In fact, Virginia introduced the death penalty to English-speaking America in 1608, when Captain George Kendall of the Jamestown colony was shot for treason. Since then, capital punishment has been Virginia’s longest continuing institution, with 1,296 men and 94 women executed between 1608 and 2017. That is more killings than any other state, including Texas.

Virginia—with its post-colonial paternalistic guardianship of white female purity—has executed only three white women since the Revolutionary War. Susannah Brazier was hanged in 1774 and Mary Snodgrass in 1896, both for murdering a child. Teresa Lewis was executed by lethal injection in 2010 in a murder-for-hire case—despite credible evidence of innocence.

In 2017, I was hired as field director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP), part of a bipartisan coalition that also includes the Virginia Catholic Conference, the Virginia ACLU, and the Virginia Interfaith Center. The position took me to targeted legislative jurisdictions, mostly Republican, where VADP had done little to no outreach, knocking on doors, organizing presentations and raising grassroots awareness of the death penalty’s corrupted processes. I spoke to political groups, civic organizations such as Kiwanis, and many faith groups. I even worked an abolition booth at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) in National Harbor, Maryland.

One of those early presentations was to a Ruritan Club in deep-red Pittsylvania County, at one time a very active death penalty region straddling the North Carolina line. The presentation was a bit tense and greeted with skepticism, with many barbed comments. One man suggested we were soft on crime; another tried to claim we cared more about coddling criminals than justice for victims. These points underscored the misconceptions surrounding the death penalty, and my replies that life in a Supermax prison with no possibility of parole was not only less expensive than execution, but could hardly be considered soft or coddling, seemed to be appreciated.

I later discovered one of the attendees was the Circuit Court judge, now retired, who had pronounced a death sentence on Teresa Lewis. Lewis had been convicted of procuring the murder of her husband, Julian Lewis, and his son Charles, as a ploy to collect Charles’s insurance proceeds. Her execution stirred controversy because of testimony that she was on the borderline of intellectual disability and because, advocates said, she had rehabilitated herself into a model prisoner. She was executed in 2010 when then-Governor Bob McDonnell denied her petition for clemency.

The judge later agreed to meet me, and over coffee cordially and maybe half-seriously answered my question that if he had to do it all over again, he would reconsider becoming a circuit court judge.

Over the last five years, VADP saw attitudes about the death penalty evolve, especially among conservatives, thanks in large part to this continuous public outreach. Virginians who believed in the theory of the death penalty finally got to truthfully hear of the exorbitant costs, the racial disparities, the lack of deterrence, and the possibility of an innocent person being put to death. We continued to hammer those points not just to the public but to elected legislators in pandemic-era Zoom meetings, many of whom admitted they never thought about the death penalty before.

During the 1790-1865 antebellum period, Virginia executed about 736 slaves—roughly 86 percent of all slave executions nationwide. Sixteen juveniles were also executed by Virginia before they reached their 18th birthday, including a slave named Rebecca, who was only 11 or 12 when she was hanged in Monroe County (now West Virginia) in 1825 for allegedly murdering a 4-year-old.

Weights were sometimes tied to children’s feet to assure their necks would break in the drop.

During the Jim Crow era, Virginia used hangings, then the electric chair, as legal lynching. Young Black males were overwhelmingly convicted in bogus, minuteslong trials, then rushed into execution, sometimes with no legal counsel, for such non-homicide crimes as highway robbery, rape, attempted assault, or—like 17-year-old Winston Green in 1908—for simply scaring a white school girl. Between 1908 and 1963, 41 Black men were executed for rape, 13 for attempted rape, one for rape and robbery, and one for attempted rape and highway robbery. Not one white.

Judges saw nothing improper about these “rocket docket” trials which frequently mollified looming lynch mobs. Platitudes such as “let the law take its course” and “justice will prevail” were correctly interpreted by mobs hell-bent on revenge as dog whistle for “the courts will do the lynching for you, legally.”

Support for the death penalty remained solid in the state, but there were cracks in the support for out-and-out lynching. In 1928, Virginia became the first state to pass an anti-lynching law, thanks to the untiring efforts of Richmond Planet editor John Mitchell Jr., and Norfolk Virginian-Pilot editor Louis Isaac Jaffé, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials were in response to rapid increases in mob violence in the early to mid-1920s. Gov. Harry F. Byrd declared there was no need for lynching with such ruthless capital punishment laws. “There is no excuse for lynching in a State where the enforcement of the law in cases likely to provoke mob violence has been prompt and rigorous. Attempted rape in Virginia may be punished by death, and juries are quick to punish crimes that once incited men to take the law in their own hands.” Congress would not pass an anti-lynching statute until 1957.

The 1984 electrocution of Linwood Briley confirmed that lynching-style toxic, mob-driven racism still lingered decades later even after lynching was no longer legally sanctioned. This execution—fueled by a gathered crowd—sparked the first iterations of an abolition movement by a small group of dedicated people, many I know well, who bore witness, during nearly half a century of frequently disheartening struggle, to the fundamental immorality of the death penalty.

Briley was a killer. Along with his brothers James and Anthony, and another named Duncan Meekins, terrorized Richmond in the late 1970s, violently murdering 12 people before they were captured. In 1984, while on death row at Mecklenburg Correctional Facility, James and Linwood, along with four other inmates, overpowered guards and fled in the largest death row escape in American history. All six were later recaptured.

On the night of the execution, just before midnight, a small group of volunteers gathered beside the Virginia State Penitentiary in a prayerful candlelight vigil. Meanwhile, a much larger mob that would have been more familiar in 1914 than 1984 collected across the street, shouting racial epithets and waving Confederate flags and homemade signs proclaiming such racist invectives as “Kill the negro,” “Fry, Briley, fry,” and far, far worse.

Michael Stone, at the time an employee of the Richmond Catholic Diocese, was in the crowd that night at the request of Bishop Walter Sullivan of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. Nearly four decades later, Stone recalled “seeing the raw racism expressed by the large crowd cheering the death of a Black man.” Partly as a result of what he saw, Stone would eventually devote much of his life to abolition—first as a staffer at the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and since 2015, as executive director of VADP. At least one relative of a murder victim was also repulsed by the mob. That night Nancy Gowen, whose mother, Mary Gowen, had been murdered by the Briley gang eyed the drunken celebrants across the road and told a United Press International reporter that “I think it’s something wrong with our system. … I don’t think to murder someone for a murder committed is the answer.”

Over 70 years before that ugly 1984 mob scene, the anti-death penalty movement began to take hold, though not entirely for reasons of humanity. The earliest efforts to abolish Virginia’s death penalty date to 1913, when the subject was broached in Richmond Times-Dispatch editorials following the execution of Floyd and Claude Allen, the white father/son ringleaders of the Hillsville Courthouse Massacre, where five, including the judge, the commonwealth attorney and the sheriff, were shot dead. Subsequent discussions followed only after high-profile executions of white men in 1928, 1936, and 1953, over the implied concern that it wasn’t fair to subject whites to the indignities of capital punishment. Executions diminished whites and maybe the practice was too untoward for the Commonwealth.

Others, such as the Newport News Daily Press, acknowledged those early arguments that the death penalty created indignities for white men, but thought it worth it for fear of what would happen if women and “sobbing sentimentalists” spared “black beasts” from death. This would be a travesty because in the paper’s words, “the negro fears death, and death alone.”

Abolition debates in 1953 newspaper editorial pages followed not the horrific 1951 mass executions of the Martinsville Seven, when seven Black men were convicted of raping a white woman and then electrocuted in assembly-line fashion over two days, but after the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two white convicted spies, in New York.

In 1963, Virginia joined an unofficial multi-state moratorium on capital punishment. Popular support had dropped to an all-time low, with the Richmond Times-Dispatch opining that, after 54 years of use, the electric chair had lost its “elegance.” Then, in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia declared the death penalty as practiced in the United States unconstitutional; four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Court created a set of procedures that, in the Justices’ view, would rationalize the death penalty and comply with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” With public support for the death penalty rising along with the national crime rate, Virginia resumed executions in 1982.

Scattered individuals could be heard voicing support for abolition throughout the 1980s. But the modern abolition movement took shape in the fall of 1991, when about 10 people, recalling the words of Nancy Gowan, whose mother was murdered, assembled in a Richmond church classroom at the request of an uncompromising death row counselor and abolitionist, Marie Deans, to discuss organized opposition to Virginia’s death penalty. Deans, a native of South Carolina, had moved to Virginia eight years earlier to form the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons, whose work aimed in part to improve conditions on death row.

Deans pointed out to her group a then-recent Virginia Tech poll, which showed that death penalty support topped out at 75 percent—but decreased significantly when respondents were offered the option of a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, along with some form of restitution to murder victims’ families. “Americans [do not] give a hoot about killing people. They really don’t give a hoot about killing them fairly, either,” an angry Marie Deans had written in 1986. “As long as there is the appearance of fairness in the death penalty, they will accept executions as a necessary evil.”

The group that formed at that meeting named itself Virginians Against State Killing (VASK). “A part of that group … felt that information [in the poll] was enough to do something with,” says Henry Heller, the first volunteer director. The group soon renamed itself Virginians Against the Death penalty, then later Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, or VADP.

The 1990s was a frustrating decade for the organization and the abolition movement. Virginia prosecutors and legislators seemed obsessed with death sentences and were willing to pursue sometimes legally questionable lengths to assure them. Meanwhile, skyrocketing public support drove Virginia to sentence five to 10 people to death, and execute up to 14 people each year—the most since 1915.

“When 1996 came along,” Heller recalled, “the death penalty seemed to be in the news daily. And I did my best just to keep it out there.” The next year, the state executed Thomas Beavers, a 26-year-old white man from Hampton, Virginia, for murder of a neighbor, 61-year-old retired school cafeteria manager Marguerite Lowrey. Beavers was the first white person in Virginia history to be executed for a crime against a Black person.

Popular support never wavered—nor did the abolition movement—throughout this gut-churning rush of sentences and executions, despite questions about the blood evidence that convicted Joseph O’Dell, a white man executed in 1997 for murdering a woman named Helen Schartner outside a Norfolk nightclub, and the botched 1990 electrocution of Wilbert Lee Evans, who bled copiously from behind the execution mask as the state delivered a 55-second jolt of electricity to his body.

In the early 2000s, approval of the death penalty remained high—but support for an alternative was increasing. “I was getting more and more inquiries from not only faith groups, but rotary type groups, schools, universities, and the press,” Heller said, adding he often had to take a break from his full-time carpentry job to do interviews. “We saw more and more in-depth reporting on the issue. Numbers at demonstrations at the Capitol were increasing.”

A few legislators introduced death penalty abolition bills but watched them unceremoniously die in committee. Heller remained optimistic. “I was actually pushing for a moratorium bill [rather than outright abolition], as that sounded more palatable,” he said.

A new executive director, Jack Payden-Travers, a retired Lynchburg College professor and volunteer at the Richmond Peace Education Center, took over VADP in 2002. His appointment coincided with the infamous cases of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the “D.C. Snipers” whose random rifle shots took ten lives that October, including shootings in Virginia. Muhammad was executed in 2009; Malvo, who was 17 at the time of the crimes, was sentenced to life without parole—a sentence reduced in 2020 to life with the possibility of parole when Virginia changed its murder statute.

After John Allen Muhammad’s execution, public death penalty support jumped from 68 percent to 77 percent.

Payden-Travers, also in 2006, spent time with Virginia’s only death row exoneree, Earl Washington Jr., an intellectually disabled Black man who needed assistance going from his home in Virginia Beach to meetings and court hearings in Richmond and Charlottesville. Washington was falsely convicted and sentenced to death for the 1982 murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams, in Culpeper, Virginia. Washington, whose near-execution is chronicled by Margaret Edds in her 2006 book “An Expendable Man,” spent 19 years in prison and was nine days away from execution when DNA evidence fully exonerated him.

In 2004, the General Assembly, under the direction of the Virginia Supreme Court, replaced the former Public Defender Commission with the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, which currently oversees 26 public defender offices and 4 capital defender offices. The commission replaced inadequate and poorly-paid court-appointed lawyers in capital cases with highly qualified full-time defenders. Death sentences soon dropped an astonishing 90 percent. The playing field against prosecutors was finally leveled.

Before 2021, the General Assembly was not yet “friendly” enough to pursue full abolition. VADP and its coalition partners instead, from 2016 to 2020, advocated against expanded capital sentences, and in favor of legislation stopping the execution of the profoundly mentally ill. In 2020, a Severe Mental Illness exemption bill passed soundly in the Senate, proving that attitudes toward capital punishment in the General Assembly were indeed changing.

Death penalty abolition in 2021—the 30th anniversary of VADP—was the convergence of numerous factors. VADP and coalition partners pushed for months to place guest op-eds in Virginia newspapers, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post and others. They collected abolition sign-on letters from progressive commonwealth attorneys, murder victim family members, conservatives, and faith leaders. They participated in prayer vigils at lynching and execution sites around the state to raise awareness. Most importantly, they coordinated constituent contact with key legislators, compelling some of them—even two Democrats who for years supported the death penalty—to flip their votes for abolition.

In addition, the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement focused an intense spotlight on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Virginia’s Democrats took control of the General Assembly in 2019 for the first time since 1995. Delegate Mike Mullin, a state prosecutor in Hampton, sponsored the House bill; Sen. Scott Surovell, a Fairfax lawyer, sponsored the identical Senate bill. Northam voiced his support for abolition during his State of the Commonwealth address.

“No doubt about it,” stated Sister Helen Prejean in April 2021, “the activism of citizens in VADP over 30 years was the sustaining fire that led to Virginia’s repeal of the death penalty.”

When he heard that the death penalty had been abolished, former death row inmate-turned-paralegal Joe Giarratano admitted he was at once stunned and uplifted. “Then I chuckled,” he recalls. His mind turned to Marie Deans, the original firebrand of Virginia’s abolition movement, who had died of cancer in 2011 before her campaign bore fruit. “I could hear Marie’s voice in my head, ‘Get back to work, all of you, the job is not done. States continue to kill in our names to show that killing is wrong.'”

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Dale M. Brumfield

Dale M. Brumfield is field director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.