Updated: Thursday, 05 Nov 2009, 2:26 PM EST
Published : Thursday, 05 Nov 2009, 2:24 PM EST
Prior to the early 20th century, death sentences were carried
out by the sheriffs of the locales by hanging the condemned on the
courthouse grounds. Hangings were public in Virginia until the
General Assembly decreed that they be conducted in private before
selected witnesses in 1879. The last hanging occurred on April 9,
1909 in Bedford when Joel Payne was hanged for murdering his father
in law. He had been convicted prior to the change in the Code of
Virginia in 1908, which mandated that the electric chair at the
State Penitentiary in Richmond be used to carry out all executions.
Electrocution was first used to carry out a capital sentence in Virginia on October 13, 1908 at the old Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond. The chair was moved to the Greensville Correctional Center in Greensville County in the spring of 1991 and first used there on July 24, 1991.
In the early 1900's when the electric chair was first used, condemned prisoners were transported to the Penitentiary in Richmond about 15 to 20 days before the sentence was to be carried out. The sentencing court would set the date of the execution and would usually set a time frame during that day for the execution. Most courts would require that the execution takes place between sunrise and sunset but some would set narrower limits. Nearly all executions took place at 7:00 AM. and were presided over by the Superintendent of the Penitentiary. Records show that one Superintendent, Mr. J. B. Wood who served from 1910 until 1922, presided over a total of 91 executions.
Up until the 1950's, executions usually took place no more than 45 to 60 days after a death sentence. There were frequent respites or stays of execution ordered by the sitting Governors. These usually were of 30 days duration but were often renewed, sometimes totaling 90 or 120 days. These stays appear to have been issued to allow time for further review of the case by the Governor or the courts. The first execution that was significantly delayed due to appeals to the courts occurred in 1926 when an execution took place as a result of a case from Petersburg that had been appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court. A period of over four years separated the original sentencing and the execution. It was not until the 1940's that delays due to appeals became frequent and then the delays were of short duration. In the 1980's long delays became common and the length of these delays started to increase.
During the first 25 years of operation of the electric chair, condemned prisoners were brought from the local jail to the Penitentiary in Richmond about 15 to 20 days prior to the date set for their execution. After the escape of two condemned prisoners from the Richmond city jail in 1935, most local sheriffs began to bring condemned prisoners to the Penitentiary on the same day they were sentenced. The practice of immediately turning over condemned prisoners to the Department of Corrections continues to this day.
The only woman to be executed in Virginia's electric chair was Virginia Christian, a seventeen-year-old, sentenced for murder in Elizabeth City County (now Hampton area). She was executed on August 16, 1912 for striking her female employer with a broomstick and then suffocating her with a towel.
The youngest person executed in the electric chair was Percy Ellis, a sixteen-year- old convicted of murder in Norfolk. He was executed on March 15, 1916.
The oldest person executed was Joe Lee who was convicted of murder in Caroline County and executed on April 21, 1916. Lee gave his age as 83 but it is believed that he was 68. In 1940 John McCann from Norfolk, who was 63 years old, was electrocuted for attempted rape.
A total of five people were executed on February 2, 1951. This was the busiest day for the electric chair. Four of the five were members of what is known as the "Martinsville Seven", all of whom were convicted of the rape of a woman in Martinsville. Three additional members of this group were executed three days later.
The busiest year for the electric chair was 1909 when a total of 17 persons were executed. This was the first full year of operation for the electric chair. A total of 15 persons were executed in 1910.
There was a 20-year period from 1962 until 1982 when the electric chair was not used. During this period the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972 and the States were forced to pass new laws dealing with a separate sentencing phase of capital trials. Carroll E. Garland from Lynchburg, executed in 1962, was the last person executed in Virginia before the new laws were passed and put into use. Frank Coppola from Newport News, executed 1982, was the first person put to death in Virginia under the new statutes.
When executions were resumed they were scheduled at 11:00 p.m. instead of 7:00 a.m. The circuit courts were setting the date of the execution but were no longer setting a time. It is believed that the decision to delay the time of executions was to allow the condemned the benefit of most of his last day to contact the courts and for last visits, etc.
Witnesses to executions have always been required, and from 1909 until the present from six to twelve witnesses have been present for each execution. It was not until 1962 that the first women were selected as execution witnesses.
The electric chair itself is simply a homemade oak armchair with leather straps attached. It is the same chair that was used at the Penitentiary in Richmond and is believed to have been built there in 1908.
The modern electrical control mechanism was installed when the existing chair was relocated from the old Penitentiary in Richmond to Greensville Correctional Center in May of 1991. The equipment is designed to deliver electricity in two applications, each lasting one and a half minutes, for a total application of three minutes. There is a slight pause between the two applications. Five minutes after the conclusion of the second electrical application, the attending physician may certify that death has occurred.
Lethal injection became an option to the electric chair in Virginia on January 1, 1995. At least fifteen days prior to his scheduled execution, the death row inmate makes the choice between injection and electrocution (Va Code § 53.1-234). If the inmate makes no choice, lethal injection is automatic.
Since lethal injections became an option to electrocution, all have been carried out at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt. Executions take place at 9:00 P.M. on the date determined by the Courts.
The first inmate to be executed by lethal injection was Dana Ray Edmonds on January 24, 1995.
Prior to the scheduled execution, the inmate is moved from death
row at Sussex I State Prison to Greensville Correctional Center.
While at Greensville, the inmate is housed in one of three cells
adjacent to the Death Chamber.
The inmate is allowed contact visits with attorneys and non-contact visits with immediate family members, clergy and spiritual advisors during specified hours.
On the day of execution, the inmate may have one contact visit with immediate family. Attorneys, clergy and spiritual advisors are allowed to visit up until the time of execution.
For the last meal, the inmate may select any meal, or combination of items, from the institution’s 28 day cycle menu. The meal must be completed no later than four hours prior to the execution. The inmate is also allowed to shower approximately two hours prior to the execution.
A member of the clergy may accompany the inmate to the Death
Chamber where he may offer words of comfort or prayer.
The inmate is escorted into the chamber just prior to the appointed hour. The curtains separating the witness room and the execution chamber remain open until the inmate is restrained to the table. Once the inmate is restrained, the curtains are closed and remain closed until the IV lines have been established, normally, one in each arm. The curtains are reopened and the Director gives the order to carry out the sentence of the court.
Condemned persons executed by lethal injection are injected with three chemicals. The first injection consists of Thiopental Sodium, which induces a state of unconsciousness. The second injection is Pancuronium Bromide, which stops breathing. The third and final injection is Potassium Chloride, which stops heart function.
When the Director is informed that death has occurred, the curtains are closed and the witnesses are escorted from the Death Chamber.
Execution viewing by victim’s family members became possible by Executive Memorandum of Governor George Allen, July 1, 1994. For privacy purposes, victim’s family members view executions from a separate room adjacent to the Death Chamber.
Media witnesses and citizen witnesses view the execution from a second room adjacent to the Death Chamber.
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