There were nights when satellite trucks crowded the asphalt in front of the Greensville Correctional Center. Generators hummed and reporters did stand-ups washed in brilliant light.
Scores of cameras were aimed at a portable lectern where officials announced the times of death and last words of inmates whose still warm bodies were headed for the medical examiner’s office in Richmond to be autopsied and recorded as homicides.
Candle-carrying protesters gathered in the rural darkness in a field several hundred yards from the prison in Jarratt. Their prayers and vigils completed, they packed up for long rides home vowing to return the next time.
The annual number of executions peaked in Virginia in modern times with 14 in 1999. There have been none now for four years and no new death sentences imposed in 10 years. Virginia’s ultimate sanction was already on life support when the General Assembly all but pulled the plug on it last week.
But it is hard to overstate the attention the state’s death penalty once generated; the heinous crimes involved; the legal and correctional resources it consumed; the anguish of surviving loved ones of murder victims; and the moral and political contentiousness that surrounds the institution.
“It was sort of part of the fabric of Virginia — whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” said Stephen D. Rosenthal, a lawyer with the Virginia attorney general’s office from 1986 to 1994, and who served as the attorney general for his last year.
That it will no longer be a part of that fabric may have implications for other states.
“The symbolic value of the dismantling of this tool of racial oppression by a legislature sitting in the former capital of the Confederacy cannot be understated,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Dunham said the legislature’s action also illustrates the erosion of capital punishment nationally and regionally. Virginia will be the 11th state in 16 years to abolish the death penalty. Capital punishment has disappeared from all of New England and the Mid-Atlantic coastal states, he said.
“With Virginia’s repeal, every coastal state north of the Carolinas will have abolished capital punishment,” Dunham said.
The 2005 election of Tim Kaine as governor — who had represented death row clients and who campaigned as an opponent of the death penalty, but promised to uphold the law — was an indication things were changing in Virginia well ahead of the Democratic Party taking over the legislature in 2019.
Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, said that for decades after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976, “outside of a few liberal white pockets, and much of the Black community, support for the death penalty was strong. And it was fundamental to political success.”
“If a politician wanted to win statewide, or in most localities and districts, he had to trumpet his backing for two things — capital punishment and the right-to-work law,” he said.
“A large majority of Democrats and Republicans were pro-capital punishment, so the only real debate was about adding crimes that could qualify for capital punishment,” Sabato said. “Everybody wanted to be tough on crime. Everybody called for ‘law and order,’ and support for the death penalty was a shorthand way to prove your bona fides.”
The Virginia attorney general’s office had a long-running team handling death case appeals that often continued into the 11th hour before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It was pretty intense ... it was sort of all hands on deck, 24/7,” Rosenthal recalled. In addition to appeals, his office communicated with the governor’s office where clemency petitions were pending.
Things were arguably more intense on the other side of those appeals and petitions. They were often filed by lawyers like Paul F. Khoury, from a big-city law firm who volunteered to represent Joseph Patrick Payne, sentenced to die for the murder of another inmate.
On the evening of Nov. 7, 1996, hours after the U.S. Supreme Court turned down Payne’s last appeal, Khoury was in the death house at Greensville with Payne while his client of nine years ate what he thought would be his last meal of fish cakes, macaroni and cheese, green peas and bread.
Three hours before Payne’s scheduled 9 p.m. execution, Gov. George Allen commuted the sentence to life.
“It was surreal,” Khoury said. He recalled telling the cameras outside the prison, “ ‘I can’t even imagine anything that I’ve ever done or maybe ever will do that involves more tension than not knowing whether your client is going to live or die.’ ”
“Surreal” is a word heard frequently around executions.
In 2013, when an unrepentant, if not defiant, Robert Charles Gleason, who murdered three people, was executed in the electric chair, the physician who pronounced him dead placed the stethoscope on his pale chest next to a tattooed skull.
Charles Stamper, who murdered three people in a 1978 robbery in Henrico County and was later crippled in a prison fight, was executed in 1993 after he was carried into the death chamber by his arms and the seat of his pants, his feet dragging on the floor.
Since 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume, Virginia, with 113 executions, was a distant second among states to Texas, with 570.
But Virginia was first in seeing that death sentences, once imposed, were carried out. By 2011, almost three-quarters of people sentenced to die for capital murders in Virginia had been executed, compared with one in 10 nationally.
When the “Beltway Sniper” team of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were captured after killing 10 people in Virginia, Maryland and Washington in 2002, authorities wasted little time in deciding that the two were tried first in Virginia.
Muhammad’s 2009 execution was not the first or the last to draw national and international media attention. And the inability to win a death sentence against Malvo, just 16 years old during the killing rampage, presaged the end of capital punishment for juvenile offenders across the country.
It was not just executions that put Virginia’s death penalty on the national radar. In 1984, alarm bells rang across the country when six inmates fled Virginia’s death row, then at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center.
The largest death row escape in U.S. history was a huge embarrassment for the state and triggered a national manhunt. All were recaptured — two in North Carolina, two in Philadelphia and two in Vermont — and have since been executed.
One escapee, Lem Tuggle, whose last words before execution were “Merry Christmas,” was represented by a young Richmond lawyer, Tim Kaine, who went on to become Richmond’s mayor, the Virginia governor and is now a U.S. senator.
Another Virginia death row inmate, Roger Keith Coleman, made the cover of Time magazine in 1992 under the headline:
“THIS MAN MIGHT BE INNOCENT”
“THIS MAN IS DUE TO DIE”
The cover of Time, a much more important venue decades ago than it is today, got part of it right: Coleman died two days later in the electric chair.
But he was not innocent.
Advocates for an end to capital punishment who hoped to prove an innocent man had been executed and four newspapers, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, that hoped to prove whether Coleman truly was guilty or innocent, won post-execution DNA testing in Coleman’s case.
It was just the second time in U.S. history that such post-execution testing had been approved. In 2006, Gov. Mark Warner’s office revealed that the results proved beyond doubt that Coleman was guilty of the 1981 rape and murder of his sister-in-law in Grundy.
In another case of claimed innocence, Roger O’Dell III won widespread support for innocence claims in Italy. O’Dell was executed in 1997 for a rape and murder in Virginia Beach and died hours after he was married in a ceremony witnessed by Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking.”
O’Dell’s body was flown to Sicily and buried in a 600-year-old cemetery. His tombstone reads in part: “killed by Virginia, USA, in a merciless and brutal justice system.”
In 1993, Aimal Kasi shot up the entrance to CIA headquarters in McLean, killing two people, wounding three, and fleeing the country. He was later captured in a cheap Pakistan hotel room by FBI agents wearing native clothing over bulletproof vests and blue jeans.
One of the agents, Bradley Garrett, said that once they had Kasi in a vehicle, he leaned over and asked, “ ‘You’re going to take me back to America and execute me, aren’t you?’ ”
Garrett responded, “’I don’t know. But that could happen.’”
Kasi was executed at Greensville in 2002, saying prayers at the end. Among those watching — at the invitation of Kasi — was Garrett.
In groundbreaking 1988 trials, Timothy Wilson Spencer, a sadistic killer dubbed “The Southside Strangler,” was convicted of raping and murdering four women, three in the Richmond area and one in Arlington.
Spencer was the first person ever convicted and sentenced to death using DNA evidence. It was that testing that also indirectly led to the 1989 exoneration of David Vasquez, wrongly convicted of another Arlington rape and murder committed by Spencer.
Virginia also executed people sentenced to die for less sensational murders committed in sparsely populated areas that drew little attention.
At times, the Department of Corrections had to scramble to get the requisite number of citizen witnesses, and not all the seats made available for media pool witnesses were filled.
And if unrepentant serial killers, rampage killers, psychopaths, rapists and sadists were executed by Virginia, so too were people who killed when they were juveniles or who were intellectually disabled.
It was a Virginia case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing people who are intellectually disabled violates the ban against cruel and unusual punishment.
Although none of the persons executed by Virginia in modern times has been proven innocent, DNA definitively proved that Earl Washington Jr., who came within days of execution, had nothing to do with a 1982 rape and murder in Culpeper.
It was Washington’s case that ultimately made it possible for people with newly discovered evidence of innocence to get it before a Virginia court.
Virginia’s so-called “21-day rule” largely barred the court from considering new evidence of innocence three weeks after the case was over. The rule once prompted former Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry to famously say, “Evidence of innocence is irrelevant.”
Virginia conducted its first execution in modern times on Aug. 27, 1982, when Frank J. Coppola, a former altar boy and police officer turned killer, died in the electric chair at 11:27 p.m. at the former Virginia State Penitentiary on Spring Street in Richmond.
A throng of media and candle-carrying protesters waited outside.
Virginia’s modern capital punishment era was ushered in by an execution team led by a Richmond native, Jerry B. Givens, who went on to conduct more than 60 others with the Department of Corrections.
“I prayed for them. I told them that they had to get themselves together because at 11 o’clock, they were going either to see their maker or going elsewhere,” Givens, who came to oppose the death penalty, told The Times-Dispatch in 2007.
Givens, who has since died, recalled that his team constantly practiced.
“You try to prepare a guy because you didn’t want him to decide to go out fighting,” he said. Instead, Givens said he wanted them to “go out with some dignity and that’s what we did.”
Executions were moved from Richmond — where the events sometimes drew boisterous sign-waving crowds on both sides of the issue — to the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, starting in 1991. Demonstrators at Greensville were kept in a field hundreds of yards from the prison, and the crowds were smaller than they had been in Richmond.
In 1995, Virginia death row inmates were given a choice between lethal injection and the electric chair, and they were put to death at 9 p.m. instead of 11 p.m.
Secrecy surrounding executions grew as the chemicals required for lethal injections became scarce. In recent years, the Department of Corrections also has curbed how much of the procedure can be seen by witnesses.
Not all surviving family members of victims supported executions, and of those who did, few were enthusiastic about it. But many believed justice was being served.
In at least two Virginia cases, pending executions divided families. Maria Hines, a former nun, opposed the execution of Dennis Wayne Eaton, who killed four people, including her brother, Virginia State trooper Jerry L. Hines, during an eight-hour 1989 rampage.
Other family survivors of Hines felt the punishment was just and planned to witness the execution carried out in 1998.
And more recently, Rachel Sutphin, the daughter of Montgomery County Deputy Sheriff Eric E. Sutphin, one of two people slain by William C. Morva, opposed Morva’s 2017 execution and has since campaigned for ending the death penalty.
Eric Sutphin’s mother, Jeaneen Sutphin, supported Morva’s execution — the last one conducted in Virginia. She told The Roanoke Times that she empathized with Morva’s family.
“I just want justice for my son,” she said.
Prior to the execution of John Allen Muhammad, Robert Meyers — the brother of Dean Meyers, who was shot to death in 2002 as he pumped gasoline in Manassas — told The Times-Dispatch that he did not disagree with Muhammad’s death sentence.
“I don’t set myself up as judge and jury. I was just going to trust God and the system [to] ... mete out the judgment,” he said. Robert Meyers was among 20 victim witnesses who watched Muhammad’s 2009 execution by injection.
He was interviewed on live television outside the prison by CNN’s Larry King.
“Honestly, it was surreal. Watching the life be sapped out of someone intentionally,” he said.
Robert Meyers said he was “pretty much overcome just by the sadness the whole situation generates in my heart.”