Prior to the early 20th century, death sentences were carriedout by the sheriffs of the locales by hanging the condemned on thecourthouse grounds. Hangings were public in Virginia until theGeneral Assembly decreed that they be conducted in private beforeselected witnesses in 1879. The last hanging occurred on April 9,1909 in Bedford when Joel Payne was hanged for murdering his fatherin law. He had been convicted prior to the change in the Code ofVirginia in 1908, which mandated that the electric chair at theState Penitentiary in Richmond be used to carry out all executions.
Electrocution was first used to carry out a capital sentence inVirginia on October 13, 1908 at the old Virginia State Penitentiaryin Richmond. The chair was moved to the Greensville CorrectionalCenter in Greensville County in the spring of 1991 and first usedthere on July 24, 1991.
In the early 1900's when the electric chair was first used,condemned prisoners were transported to the Penitentiary inRichmond about 15 to 20 days before the sentence was to be carriedout. The sentencing court would set the date of the execution andwould usually set a time frame during that day for the execution.Most courts would require that the execution takes place betweensunrise and sunset but some would set narrower limits. Nearly allexecutions took place at 7:00 AM. and were presided over by theSuperintendent of the Penitentiary. Records show that oneSuperintendent, 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 than45 to 60 days after a death sentence. There were frequent respitesor stays of execution ordered by the sitting Governors. Theseusually were of 30 days duration but were often renewed, sometimestotaling 90 or 120 days. These stays appear to have been issued toallow time for further review of the case by the Governor or thecourts. The first execution that was significantly delayed due toappeals to the courts occurred in 1926 when an execution took placeas a result of a case from Petersburg that had been appealed to theU. S. Supreme Court. A period of over four years separated theoriginal sentencing and the execution. It was not until the 1940'sthat delays due to appeals became frequent and then the delays wereof short duration. In the 1980's long delays became common and thelength 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 thePenitentiary in Richmond about 15 to 20 days prior to the date setfor their execution. After the escape of two condemned prisonersfrom the Richmond city jail in 1935, most local sheriffs began tobring condemned prisoners to the Penitentiary on the same day theywere sentenced. The practice of immediately turning over condemnedprisoners to the Department of Corrections continues to thisday.
The only woman to be executed in Virginia's electric chair wasVirginia Christian, a seventeen-year-old, sentenced for murder inElizabeth City County (now Hampton area). She was executed onAugust 16, 1912 for striking her female employer with a broomstickand then suffocating her with a towel.
The youngest person executed in the electric chair was PercyEllis, a sixteen-year- old convicted of murder in Norfolk. He wasexecuted on March 15, 1916.
The oldest person executed was Joe Lee who was convicted ofmurder in Caroline County and executed on April 21, 1916. Lee gavehis age as 83 but it is believed that he was 68. In 1940 JohnMcCann from Norfolk, who was 63 years old, was electrocuted forattempted rape.
A total of five people were executed on February 2, 1951. Thiswas the busiest day for the electric chair. Four of the five weremembers of what is known as the "Martinsville Seven", all of whomwere convicted of the rape of a woman in Martinsville. Threeadditional members of this group were executed three dayslater.
The busiest year for the electric chair was 1909 when a total of17 persons were executed. This was the first full year of operationfor the electric chair. A total of 15 persons were executed in1910.
There was a 20-year period from 1962 until 1982 when theelectric chair was not used. During this period the Supreme Courtdeclared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972 and the Stateswere forced to pass new laws dealing with a separate sentencingphase of capital trials. Carroll E. Garland from Lynchburg,executed in 1962, was the last person executed in Virginia beforethe new laws were passed and put into use. Frank Coppola fromNewport News, executed 1982, was the first person put to death inVirginia 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 ofthe execution but were no longer setting a time. It is believedthat the decision to delay the time of executions was to allow thecondemned the benefit of most of his last day to contact the courtsand for last visits, etc.
Witnesses to executions have always been required, and from 1909until the present from six to twelve witnesses have been presentfor each execution. It was not until 1962 that the first women wereselected as execution witnesses.
The electric chair itself is simply a homemade oak armchair withleather straps attached. It is the same chair that was used at thePenitentiary in Richmond and is believed to have been built therein 1908.
The modern electrical control mechanism was installed when theexisting chair was relocated from the old Penitentiary in Richmondto Greensville Correctional Center in May of 1991. The equipment isdesigned to deliver electricity in two applications, each lastingone and a half minutes, for a total application of three minutes.There is a slight pause between the two applications. Five minutesafter the conclusion of the second electrical application, theattending physician may certify that death has occurred.
Lethal injection became an option to the electric chair inVirginia on January 1, 1995. At least fifteen days prior to hisscheduled execution, the death row inmate makes the choice betweeninjection and electrocution (Va Code § 53.1-234). If theinmate makes no choice, lethal injection is automatic.
Since lethal injections became an option to electrocution, allhave been carried out at Greensville Correctional Center inJarratt. Executions take place at 9:00 P.M. on the date determinedby the Courts.
The first inmate to be executed by lethal injection was Dana RayEdmonds on January 24, 1995.
Prior to the scheduled execution, the inmate is moved from deathrow at Sussex I State Prison to Greensville Correctional Center.While at Greensville, the inmate is housed in one of three cellsadjacent to the Death Chamber.
The inmate is allowed contact visits with attorneys andnon-contact visits with immediate family members, clergy andspiritual advisors during specified hours.
On the day of execution, the inmate may have one contact visitwith immediate family. Attorneys, clergy and spiritual advisors areallowed to visit up until the time of execution.
For the last meal, the inmate may select any meal, orcombination of items, from the institution’s 28 day cyclemenu. The meal must be completed no later than four hours prior tothe execution. The inmate is also allowed to shower approximatelytwo hours prior to the execution.
A member of the clergy may accompany the inmate to the DeathChamber where he may offer words of comfort or prayer.
The inmate is escorted into the chamber just prior to theappointed hour. The curtains separating the witness room and theexecution chamber remain open until the inmate is restrained to thetable. Once the inmate is restrained, the curtains are closed andremain closed until the IV lines have been established, normally,one in each arm. The curtains are reopened and the Director givesthe order to carry out the sentence of the court.
Condemned persons executed by lethal injection are injected withthree chemicals. The first injection consists of Thiopental Sodium,which induces a state of unconsciousness. The second injection isPancuronium Bromide, which stops breathing. The third and finalinjection is Potassium Chloride, which stops heart function.
When the Director is informed that death has occurred, thecurtains are closed and the witnesses are escorted from the DeathChamber.
Execution viewing by victim’s family members becamepossible by Executive Memorandum of Governor George Allen, July 1,1994. For privacy purposes, victim’s family members viewexecutions from a separate room adjacent to the Death Chamber.
Media witnesses and citizen witnesses view the execution from asecond room adjacent to the Death Chamber.
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