Death Row and Executions in Virginia

the first colonist to be executed in Virginia may have been held under guard very briefly, in a structure like this reconstructed building at Jamestown Settlement
the first colonist to be executed in Virginia may have been held under guard very briefly, in a structure like this reconstructed building at Jamestown Settlement

The jail cells used to house inmates between sentencing and execution is known as "death row." Virginia's current death row is at Sussex I State Prison. Prisoners are transported to the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt for execution by lethal injection or use of the electric chair.1

The first execution in Virginia after the English colonists arrived was at Jamestown. The council established by the Virginia Company to govern Jamestown in 1607 sentenced Captain George Kendall to death six months after arriving in Virginia. Kendall was shot to death on the same day as the sentence, but the prisoner may have been incarcerated very briefly in a structure within the fort at Jamestown right after the council declared its verdict.

Death by gunfire was considered more honorable than execution by hanging. Sir Thomas Gates sentenced one mutinous colonist to death in 1610, while stranded on Bermuda after the shipwreck of the Sea Venture. Gates had previously pardoned other mutineers, but made an example of Henry Paine. He did grant Paine's request to be shot rather than hung:2

our Governour [Sir Thomas Gates], who had now the eyes of the whole Colony fixed upon him, condemned him to be instantly hanged; and the ladder being ready, after he had made many confessions, hee earnestly desired, being a Gentleman, that hee might be shot to death, and towards the evening he had his desire, the Sunne and his life setting together.

Native Americans in Virginia also applied the death penalty. John Smith claimed he was about to be executed until a "rescue" by Pocahontas. In 1609, Powhatan had his warriors use clubs to crush the skulls of two colonists who had fled Jamestown twice and betrayed the colony. That execution occurred at Orapakes, to which Powhatan had retired to get further away from the English. "Death Row" for the two traitors consisted of being dragged a few yards from where Powhatan pronounced the punishment to a nearby log.3

in his capital at Orapakes, Powhatan executed two men trying to betray the colony at Jamestown
in his capital at Orapakes, Powhatan executed two men trying to betray the colony at Jamestown
Source: Library of Congress, John Smith's Map of Virginia

The Virginia Company controlled the colony until King James revoked its charter in 1624. In 1623, Daniel Frank became the first man executed in Virginia by hanging. He had stolen a calf belonging to former governor George Yeardley along with another man. The accomplice was pardoned, but Frank made history. The first women to be hung in Virginia were Jane Champion in 1633, and Margaret Hatch in 1634.4

In colonial times, white convicts were executed at Jamestown or (after 1699) at Williamsburg. If the potential punishment was death and the defendent was white, the case was sent to Jamestown for trial by the General Court. The county courts established after 1634 did not try capital cases.

Executions by hanging occurred almost immediately after sentencing by the General Court, with no extended delay for further appeals. There was no death row with inmates awaiting results from lengthy appeals. The General Court met in various statehouse structures at Jamestown, and a gallows was located nearby. A likely ocation is the edge of the Pitch and Tar Swamp, which visitors see today when crossing the bridge from the National Park Service visitor center to the fort.5

The General Assembly moved the state capital to Williamsburg in 1699 and ordered construction of the Public Gaol (jail) near the new state capitol in 1701. Prisoners condemned to death by the General Court, which met in the State Capitol, were kept briefly in the colonial jail until being taken to the triangular gallows on Capitol Landing Road and executed. Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg can see the original jail structure along with reconstructions of associated buildings.6

William and Mary archeologists discovered the site of the gallows and published their report in 1992, but that part of Williamsburg's history has not been reconstructed. An estimated 170 people were hung at that location, with the last believed to be a slave in 1820.7

Among those executed there may have been up to 13 pirates captured and brought back to Virginia after Blackbeard was killed in 1718. Some - perhaps all - of those pirates were hung at Hampton as well, where an Admiralty Court had condemned them to death. At Hampton, the pirates were incarcerated on board the HMS Pearl before trial and then execution, so at least one ship may have served as a Death Row in Virginia.8

County courts ultimately gained authority to try capital cases when the defendants were slaves. Those who were convicted and sentenced to death were executed by hanging from a tree near the local courthouse, so cells in many local jails could have served briefly as a "death row." There is a Gallows Road in Fairfax County leading from the site of the first county courthouse at modern-day Tysons Corner to Alexadria, but there is no evidence that a gallows was ever constructed or used there. There was a gallows built at the site of the second county courthouse, now Market Square in Alexandria.9

After the state penitentiary was built in 1800 in Richmond, prisoners condemned to death were kept in that prison on Spring Street until executed. There was a Death Row in Richmond for nearly two centuries.

Executions by the electric chair started in 1908 at the state penitentiary in Richmond, and the last hanging was in 1909. Virginia never had a cyanide gas chamber; that technology was implemented by other states after Virginia had adopted the electric chair.10

A de facto moratorium with no executions began in Virginia in 1962, as lawyers argued that the death penalty was a cruel and unusual punishment. In 1976, the US Supreme Court decided that the death penalty was a legal punishment. The oak electric chair, orginally made by prisoners, had been placed in storage. It was reinstalled in 1977 in the basement of "A Building," and used again for the first time in 1982.

Virginia opened a new penitentiary in Mecklenburg County in 1977 and transferred all male Death Row inmates to that facility. Prisoners about to be executed were returned to the state penitentiary in Richmond 15 days before the scheduled execution.

The last meal was served on Spring Street, even after Death Row moved to Mecklenburg County. Then the inmate's head and right lower leg were shaved, and a sponge soaked in brine was placed inside a cap on the inmate's head. A natural sea sponge was always used in Virginia. When Florida substituted a synthetic sponge once, it caught fire and foot-long flames shot out from the mask during the execution.

The final step required two guards to press buttons that allowed electricity to surge through the head and the heart before exiting the leg of the prisoner. Both buttons activated the circuit; there was no "dummy" button allowing a guard to think his action had not been the cause of the prisoner's death.11

One man was on the execution detail for 62 prisoners between 1984-1999. He described the last stage of the electric chair process:12

I pushed a button. There was a timer, and the charge was for 45 seconds. I started out with about 2,300 volts and 4 amps, then ran it down to 2, because after 35 or 45 seconds of that first hot cycle, he's dead... There's enough there to kill a horse during that first cycle.

...I wanted a perfect execution... because if the machine acted bad or the body caught on fire it would come back on me.

By 1994, the state had experimented with different ways to execute a prisoner, and was sending the electricity through the chair in two surges. The first, a 30-second shock with 1,825 volts, was intended to stop the heart. The second surge was administered three-five seconds later. It was a 60-second shock with just 240 volts, intended to cause brain death. If necessary, guards could press the buttons again to deliver additional cycles of electricity to ensure death.

Problems with two executions led the General Assembly to authorize the use of lethal injection as an alternative in 1994. In 1990, one prisoner had a nosebleed during his execution, and the appearance of blood on the mask alarmed the witnesses. In 1991, the prisoner still had a pulse after the first cycle of electric charges, and a second cycle was necessary.13

The Mecklenburg Correctional Facility was supposed to be a shining example of a high-security facility, eliminating prisoner escapes. Instead, it became the site of the largest prison escape of Death Row inmates in US history.

Six men escaped in 1984, after dressing as guards and fooling others into thinking there was an urgent need to open the gates to get a supposed bomb out of the facility. The bomb was actually a TV set covered by a sheet. All six were caught within three weeks, but the warden was demoted and other staff fired or transferred.14

The state penintentiary in Richmond was closed at the end of 1990. All remaining inmates were moved to Greensville Correctional Center in Greensville County or Keen Mountain Correctional Center in Buchanan County. However, the basement of A Building in the state penitentiary remained operating in Richmond for several more months.

The state had a execution scheduled in February 1991, and the electrical grid at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt was not yet capable of handling it. The electric chair remained on standby at the old state penitentiary until the prisoner was utlimately pardoned rather than executed.15

the electric chair was moved to Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt in 1991
the electric chair was moved to Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt in 1991
Source: Library of Virginia, Virginia Memory, "Down In The Shadow Of The Penitentiary:" The Closing Of The Virginia Penitentiary (February 22, 2017)

Death Row was moved from Mecklenburg Correctional Facility to Sussex I State Prison in Waverly, when the new prison opened in 1998. Prisoners scheduled for execution are transported to Greensville 15 days before the execution date.

The Mecklenburg Correctional Facility was closed in 2012. Unlike the state penitentiary in Richmond, the structure housing the old Death Row still remains.16

Since 1995, most executions have been by lethal injection, but some prisoners have chosen to die in the electric chair that is also located at Greensville.

Between 2004-2008, the number of prisoners on death row in Virginia fluctuated between 26 to 17. By 2014, the number of prisoners held on Death Row had dropped to 8.

There have been 112 executions between 1982-2017, 31 by electrocution and 81 by lethal injection. The execution of Teresa Lewis in 2010, by lethal injection at the Greensville Correctional Center, was the first of a woman in Virginia since Virginia Christian was electrocuted at the state penintentiary in Richmond in 1912. Teresa Lewis was held at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women before transfer to the Greensville Correctional Center.

Since 1982 an additional five prisoners committed suicide, and two other died from natural causes while on death row before the scheduled date of their execution. There have been 29 prisoners removed from death row after their sentences were modified by court order or executive pardon.17

First Prison in Colonial Virginia

Modern Prisons in Virginia

between 1699-1780, the General Court handled capital cases in the Capitol building in Williamsburg and hangings were done at the gallows on what is now Capitol Landing Road
between 1699-1780, the General Court handled capital cases in the Capitol building in Williamsburg and hangings were done at the gallows on what is now Capitol Landing Road



1. "Eastern Region - Sussex I State Prison," Virginia Department of Corrections, (last checked April 27, 2017)
2. William Strachey, A true reportory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight, in Hakluytus posthumus, or, Purchas his Pilgrimes, compiled by Samuel Purchas, London, 1625, posted by Encyclopedia Virginia, (last checked April 26, 2017)
3. David A. Price, Love and Hate in Jamestown, Vintage Books, 2003, p.116, (last checked April 27, 2017)
4. "1623: Daniel Frank, the first hanging in the USA," ExecutedToday,; Anthony Galvin, Old Sparky: The Electric Chair and the History of the Death Penalty, Skyhorse Publishing, 2016, p.14, (last checked April 27, 2017)
5. Martha W. McCartney, Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers, 1607-1635, Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007, p.494, (last checked April 24, 2017)
6. H. Bullock, "Public Gaol Historical Report, Block 27 Building 2," Colonial Williamsburg, 1934,\RR1634.xml (last checked April 24, 2017)
7. J. B. Jones, C. M. Downing, "Capital Punishment in Colonial Virginia - Phase III Data Recovery for Mitigation of Adverse Effects to Site 44WB66 (The Colonial Gallows) Associated with the VNG Mechanicsville to Kingsmill Lateral Pipeline, City of Williamsburg, Virginia," 1992,; "Gallows Dig May Mark Spot Where Bluebeard`s Crew Last Hung Out," Chicago Tribune, July 1, 1992, (last checked April 24, 2017)
8. "The gallows where Blackbeard's crew swung," Daily Press, May 26, 2012,; "Hampton hangs two members of Blackbeard's crew 295 years ago," Daily Press, January 27, 2014,; "When Blackbeard Scourged the Seas," Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Volume 15 Number 1 (Autumn 1992), (last checked April 24, 2017)
9. Eleanor Herman, "Courting Trouble: The Turbulent Times Of Fairfax County’s Colonial Courthouse," p.38, (last checked April 24, 2017)
10. "Virginia," Death Penalty Information Center, (last checked April 27, 2017)
11. "The Execution Tour," Daily Press, May 5, 1991, (last checked April 27, 2017)
12. "An Executioner’s Song," Richmond Magazine, April 4, 2016, (last checked April 27, 2017)
13. "Va.'s execution of double murderer may be last for its electric chair," Washington Post, March 4, 1994, (last checked April 27, 2017)
14. "Jailbreak: Briley brothers busted out of death row," Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 31, 2009, (last checked April 27, 2017)
15. "'Down In The Shadow Of The Penitentiary:' The Closing Of The Virginia Penitentiary," Out of the Box blog of the Library of Virginia, February 22, 2017, (last checked April 27, 2017)
16. "UPDATE - Governor plans closing of Mecklenburg Correctional Center," South Boston News & Record, December 12, 2011, (last checked April 27, 2017)
17. "State Responsible Offender Population Trends FY2004-FY2008," Virginia Department of Corrections, May 2010, p.10,; "State Responsible Offender Population Trends FY2010-FY2014," Virginia Department of Corrections, July 2015, p.13,; "Virginia's Execution History," Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty,; "Searchable Execution Database," Death Penalty Information Center,; "Virginia executes its first woman since 1912 as Teresa Lewis dies by lethal injection amid international outcry," Daily Mail, September 24, 2010,; "Facts About Virginia's Death Row," NBC News- Washington, November 10, 2009, (last checked April 27, 2017)

Prisons in Virginia
Crime and Punishment in Virginia
Virginia Places