The Long Shadow of Virginia’s Death Penalty

Virginia made history when it abolished capital punishment. But for those who were proximate to the state’s 113 executions, closure remains complicated.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, seated center, signs a bill abolishing the death penalty surrounded by legislators and activists at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., on March 24, 2021.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, seated center, signs a bill abolishing the death penalty, surrounded by legislators and activists at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., on March 24, 2021. Photo: Steve Helber/AP

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in late March, a stream of cars pulled up to a checkpoint at the Greensville Correctional Center, just outside the rural town of Jarratt, Virginia. An employee with the Virginia Department of Corrections inspected driver’s licenses and took temperatures, then waved each vehicle up a narrow road toward the parking lot, where reporters waited for the governor to arrive.

The media had visited this parking lot many times before. Since 1991, the year Virginia’s death chamber was moved to Greensville from the old state penitentiary in Richmond, more than 100 people had been executed inside the prison. There was Roger Coleman, whose vociferous claims of innocence before his 1992 execution were debunked years later by DNA. There was John Allen Muhammad, known as one of the Beltway snipers, who terrorized the D.C. area before being executed in 2009. And there was Teresa Lewis, killed the following year for a double murder for hire — and the sole woman to die in Virginia’s death chamber in nearly a century.

Now reporters gathered in the same parking lot for a very different event. In a milestone that seemed to catch lawmakers themselves by surprise, Virginia had become the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty. The signing ceremony put racial justice front and center, casting the death penalty as a historical relic rooted in slavery and lynching. Introducing Gov. Ralph Northam, his chief legal counsel, Rita Davis, greeted the attendees with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” she said. “But today, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, it bends sharply towards justice.”

Among those gathered inside the tent was Dale Brumfield, a local author and field organizer for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. His most recent book, “Railroaded,” profiles the first 100 people killed in Virginia’s electric chair, 87 of whom were Black. One was a teenage girl, executed in 1912 on her 17th birthday. In a story for Richmond’s alt-weekly, Brumfield linked these killings, little more than legal lynchings, to the first executions in the so-called modern death penalty era. On the night that Linwood Briley was executed in 1984, for example, a white mob reveled outside, “shouting racial epithets and waving homemade signs declaring such racist invectives as ‘kill the negro,’ ‘fry Briley fry,’ and far worse,” he wrote.

Brumfield echoed what others have said about the abolition law: “It happened way sooner than I ever thought it would,” he said. Although there were several contributing factors — the Democratic takeover of the legislature key among them — everyone agreed that one event had fueled the urgency around abolition: the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. The unprecedented wave of protests not only led to the toppling of 26 Confederate monuments in Virginia between May and September, but also “turbocharged criminal justice reform in Virginia across the board,” said VADP Executive Director Michael Stone.

Northam had called a special session to be held in August, which was intended to tackle budget challenges due to Covid-19. Instead, criminal justice reform dominated the session. Lawmakers brought a slew of bills aimed at police accountability, sentencing reform, and racial justice. Politicians who had theoretically supported but never acted on abolition legislation decided they were ready to pass a bill during the regular session. “The whole Black Lives Matter movement suddenly made it a priority,” Stone said.

It didn’t hurt that the governor himself had something to prove when it came to his commitment to racial justice. Northam faced calls to resign in 2019 after a photo emerged from an old yearbook that appeared to show him in blackface. Compounding his disastrous response to the controversy — first apologizing, then denying it was him in the photo — Northam then held a press conference in which he admitted to having worn shoe polish on his cheeks to imitate Michael Jackson and almost did the moonwalk on stage.

Now the governor was invoking the racist history of capital punishment. Of the 377 people executed for murder in Virginia between 1900 and 1999, 296 were Black. “The racism and discrimination of our past still echoes in our systems today,” Northam said. He cited the case of Earl Washington Jr., a Black man sentenced to death in 1984 for a crime he did not commit. After giving a coerced confession, Washington came within days of execution only to be exonerated in 2000. “Can we really, truly be sure that there aren’t others?” the governor asked.

“I’ll be damned. I think we did this.”

Northam introduced Scott Surovell, the bill’s lead sponsor in the state Senate. Surovell had toured Greensville in the early 1990s as a governor’s fellow straight out of college. He remembered seeing the electric chair “sitting right there in the middle of the room. And I can’t tell you the impact it has on you … to see that device, to have to think about how many people sat in it.” He recalled a sense of revulsion and shame. “I never thought I’d be back here today doing this, I can tell you that.”

As the bill’s sponsors spoke, Kenneth Plum sat a few feet away in the audience. The longest serving member of Virginia’s House of Delegates, Plum was first elected in 1977, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Gregg v. Georgia ushered in the “modern” death penalty era in the United States. Over the next three decades, Plum tried to push back against the death penalty but was stymied by politics. “So much of the discussion about it was whether or not you could get reelected if you voted to get rid of it,” Plum recalled in a phone call after the signing. “And when I look back on this, it’s disappointing to realize that that was the driving force for keeping it in place for a lot of people.”

Plum had driven four hours for the signing ceremony. “I haven’t been to another bill signing since the pandemic,” he said. Virginia was on a roll passing progressive legislation, but this one was especially meaningful. “It was kind of like, ‘I’ll be damned. I think we did this.’”

Dale Brumfield, field Director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, left, and Jack Payden-Travers stand at the Greensville Correctional Center, on July 6, 2017, in Jarratt, Va.

Dale Brumfield, field director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, left, and Jack Payden-Travers stand at the Greensville Correctional Center on July 6, 2017, in Jarratt, Va.

Photo: Steve Helber/AP

Careers Built on Capital Punishment

The end of the death penalty in Virginia is part of a larger and now familiar story nationwide. Like almost every other jurisdiction in the country, Virginia had already seen a sharp decline in new death sentences and executions. Thanks in large part to a network of regional capital defender offices that vastly improved the lawyering done in death penalty cases, there had not been a new death sentence since 2011.

Still, it is hard to overstate the significance of Virginia’s abolition law. Counting executions in the colonial era, the commonwealth carried out more executions than any state in the U.S. — and was second only to Texas in the number of people put to death in the modern era. This was largely due to an appellate process designed to swiftly send defendants to the execution chamber. Virginia had the dubious distinction of killing the condemned faster than any jurisdiction in the nation.

Virginia had the dubious distinction of killing the condemned faster than any jurisdiction in the nation.

Virginia was also a case study in the death penalty as a bipartisan project. Of the 113 killings carried out since the state resumed executions in 1982, 47 were overseen by Democratic governors. The last three executions were approved by former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who most recently denied clemency to William Morva, a man with severe mental illness. In the years since Morva’s execution, the daughter of one of his victims had become a vocal critic of capital punishment.

As in other states, Virginia’s modern death penalty law was once supposed to be reserved for a narrow class of murders. After lawmakers revised the statute in the wake of the landmark 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which declared the death penalty unfairly and thus unconstitutionally applied across the country, lawmakers immediately started adding crimes to the list of offenses that made a defendant eligible for death. Between the late 1970s and the end of the 1990s, lawmakers voted to expand the death penalty over a dozen times, to include offenses ranging from the murder of a police officer to the murder of a child under 14 years old by a person over the age of 21.

Few politicians were as aggressive in pushing these laws as the elected prosecutors who made up the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. For years, the group “routinely opposed any kind of death penalty reform legislation,” recalled Stone. But over the past decade, Virginia voters began electing commonwealth attorneys who ran on promises of criminal justice reform. As Stone recalled, “we ended up getting the support of 12 commonwealth attorneys in support of abolition,” including those representing counties that once routinely sent defendants to death row. With their members divided on the matter, VACA stayed silent on the abolition bill.

Among the new crop of commonwealth attorneys was Amy Ashworth, who replaced famed Prince William County prosecutor Paul Ebert after he retired in 2018. During Ebert’s five decades in office, he won 13 death sentences, making the county one of the country’s top death penalty jurisdictions. In a sign of the times, Ebert failed to win a death sentence in his final murder trial, later musing to the Washington Post that the county had changed. “The demographics of Prince William were relatively conservative all those years and much more pro-death,” Ebert said. “And I always knew someone on the jury. Now, I seldom know someone on the jury.”

Like numerous prosecutors of his generation who built careers on capital punishment, Ebert reveled in his tough-on-crime reputation. He also exemplifies the lack of accountability for prosecutors who abused the power they wielded against defendants. Ebert presided over one of Virginia’s most egregious death penalty cases in recent memory: that of Justin Wolfe, who was just 19 years old when he was arrested for a murder he swore he did not commit. Wolfe spent more than a decade on death row insisting on his innocence before ultimately taking a plea deal. For Wolfe and countless others whose lives were shaped by Virginia’s death penalty system, abolition does not bring their ordeal to a close.

Terri Steinberg (L), whose son is on death row, speaks with Delia Perez Meyer, whose brother is on death row, during the 20th annual Starvin' for Justice fast and vigil against the death penalty in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington on June 29, 2013.

Terri Steinberg, left, whose son is on death row, speaks with Delia Perez Meyer, whose brother is on death row, during the 20th annual Starvin’ for Justice fast and vigil against the death penalty in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 2013.

Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

A Bittersweet Victory

Wolfe’s mother, Terri Steinberg, was at home in Fairfax the day the bill was signed. A dedicated activist who traveled the country with an abolitionist group called the Journey of Hope, she’d hoped to be at the signing ceremony but was unable to make the trip. Although Steinberg was overjoyed at the news that the legislation had passed, the victory was bittersweet. The same week Northam signed the bill into law, her son turned 40 years old behind bars.

Steinberg has told her story countless times. Her oldest son, Justin, started selling marijuana while in high school. In 2001, a former classmate named Owen Barber killed another drug dealer named Daniel Petrole, the son of a former Secret Service agent, then claimed he carried out the murder at Wolfe’s command. After a three-week trial that leaned heavily on Barber’s self-serving testimony, Wolfe was sentenced to die.

After years of denying that Wolfe had ordered Barber to kill anyone, Wolfe and his lawyers discovered a police report that Ebert had hidden from the defense at trial. It showed how a Prince William County detective had coerced Barber into blaming Wolfe for the murder by threatening him with the death penalty. In an evidentiary hearing in 2010, Barber testified that “they said they wanted the truth, but at the same time, they said that this is what you have got to say or you are getting the chair.”

“They said they wanted the truth, but at the same time, they said that this is what you have got to say or you are getting the chair.”

Such violations are not uncommon in death penalty cases — nor do they necessarily lead to new trials. But the police report was not the only evidence that Ebert had failed to disclose. In fact, at the same hearing, Ebert defended his misconduct by essentially explaining that his office did not have an “open file” policy for a reason: He did not want defense attorneys to have evidence that might exculpate their client. In his experience, he testified, “when you have information that is given to certain counsel and certain defendants, they are able to fabricate a defense around what is provided.”

In 2011, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson found Ebert’s conduct “not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process,” vacating Wolfe’s conviction. Although the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Jackson’s order in 2012 — lambasting Ebert’s “flabbergasting explanation” for withholding exculpatory evidence — the commonwealth refused to give up. A few days after the ruling, Ebert visited Barber in prison, accused him of violating his plea deal, and told him that a revocation of the agreement would leave him eligible for the death penalty himself. “In effect, they applied the same pressure that had been applied before Wolfe’s trial,” wrote Slate’s legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick, who followed the case for years.

Things only got worse from there. After Jackson decried Ebert’s attempts to pressure Barber — and ordered Wolfe’s release in December 2012 — Ebert appealed again. This time, the 4th Circuit found that the judge was wrong. While Wolfe remained in jail, prosecutors revamped their case, casting him as a kingpin in a “continuing criminal enterprise” and bringing new charges against him — a number of which carried the death penalty. Steinberg went from shopping for new clothes in anticipation of her son’s homecoming to facing a brand-new death penalty trial.

“He watched so many of his friends on death row go through the mental break caused by solitary and was starting to feel some of that himself.”

By then, Steinberg was watching her son increasingly struggle. The trauma of death row and multiple execution dates had been hard enough. Now he was languishing in isolation at the Prince William County jail with no end in sight. “When the case was vacated, it went back to Virginia to be retried within 120 days,” Steinberg said. “And before you know it, it was four years. … He had gotten to the point where he had started to feel the effects of solitary confinement. He watched so many of his friends on death row go through the mental break caused by solitary and was starting to feel some of that himself.”

In March 2016, Steinberg sat down to write an email to friends and fellow activists. The subject was “Justin.” She thanked them for their support over the previous 15 years and told them she wanted them to hear what she was going to share from her rather than through the press or social media. Prosecutors in Wolfe’s case had offered him a plea, and he had decided to take it. Rather than face the threat of a new death sentence — or another decade of appeals — he agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder and was resentenced to 41 years in prison.

“I was devastated,” Steinberg recalls. She did not read her son’s handwritten, four-page statement until it was published by the Washington Post, which called it a “stunning reversal” that “essentially validated the prosecution’s consistent version of events.” In fact, Steinberg said, although the letter was supposed to be in her son’s words, he told her he’d been made to rewrite it numerous times to satisfy prosecutors.

“Justin took this plea under such duress,” Steinberg said. A new legal team has since challenged Wolfe’s plea deal, arguing that he was coerced by vindictive prosecutors. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Virginia to grant a hearing on the matter, but it has yet to be resolved.

On the day the final vote came down to end capital punishment in Virginia, Steinberg was at work, unable to follow the vote. It was only when an activist friend called her and said “It’s done” that she started to cry. “There was just tears of relief, joy, sadness.” She sent a message to her son right away. “He called me within a half an hour,” she said. “And we celebrated on the phone.”

At the prison where he is currently incarcerated, Wolfe works in the area that receives new transfers. Steinberg says her son hopes he’ll have a chance to see the two remaining men on death row once they are reclassified and moved. One of them has an innocence claim that she hopes will lead to his conviction being overturned. “But,” Steinberg said, “the system doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to.”

You’re Saving All of Us

In all, 18 people were executed in Virginia while Wolfe was on death row. Among them were friends who had tried to help him adjust to his surroundings. When Wolfe first arrived at Sussex State Prison at age 21, Steinberg recalled, “someone had put together a brown paper bag full of candy bars, soap, magazines — things that he would need when he first got there, because he had nothing.” The welcome package had been arranged in part by Dennis Orbe, who would be executed in 2004. On the night he was killed, Steinberg drove Orbe’s spiritual adviser to Greensville and back.

Just as her son had forged unlikely friendships with his neighbors, Steinberg found community among the activists and loved ones who fought for the condemned. She spent hours on the road with the grandmother of Ricky Gray, who was 80 years old and had diabetes but was nonetheless determined to see her grandson before she died; Gray was executed in 2017. Before Virginia executed John Allen Muhammad in 2009, she got a letter thanking her for raising a son as compassionate as Wolfe, along with her work against the death penalty. “I know you got into this to save your son, but ultimately, you’re saving all of us,” Muhammad wrote.

One of the last people to be executed before Wolfe left death row was Teresa Lewis. As the only woman under a death sentence in Virginia, she was held inside one of the isolation wings at the Fluvanna Women’s Correctional Center, almost two hours away from Greensville. Shortly after Lewis was executed in September 2010, Steinberg was on a panel with Lewis’s defense attorney, James Rocap. “He was so broken by it all,” she recalled. “I really thought they would be able to save her.”

Rocap is a lawyer handling civil cases at a firm in Washington, D.C. In a phone call following the signing ceremony, he recalled the many problems with Lewis’s case. Lewis was convicted in 2002 for paying two men to kill her husband, Julian, and his 25-year-old son, Charles. Although she quickly confessed to having arranged the murders in order to collect insurance money — and was portrayed as the mastermind behind the crime — questions emerged about the commonwealth’s theory. Lewis was evaluated by an expert who said her intellectual functioning placed her among the “lowest 3% of our society.” In 2004, one of the gunmen, Matthew Shallenberger, who later died by suicide, admitted to an investigator that the plan had been “entirely my idea” and that he had manipulated Lewis, who was in love with him, “eager to please me,” and “not very smart.”

“She was basically duped,” Rocap said. “Was she a member of the conspiracy? Yes, she was a member of the conspiracy. … Was she responsible in the same way that someone who intentionally, and purposely, and so on, commits a horrific crime like this? No, she wasn’t.”

Lewis’s execution attracted attention well beyond Virginia. Novelist John Grisham wrote an op-ed calling for clemency. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad invoked the case in a speech in New York, accusing Americans of hypocrisy for raising cries against the death sentence of an Iranian woman found guilty of adultery while appearing to ignore the case of Lewis. Although they did not receive as much publicity, the most sincere and heartfelt appeals came from the women who had gotten to know Lewis behind bars.

Death penalty protestor and former Fluvanna womens prison chaplain, Rev. Lynn Litchfield, reads a passage from the bible outside the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., on Sept. 23, 2010.

Death penalty protester and former Fluvanna prison chaplain Rev. Lynn Litchfield reads a passage from the Bible outside the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., on Sept. 23, 2010.

Photo: Steve Helber/AP

In solitary confinement at Fluvanna, Lewis encountered other women who had been sent to the segregation unit. “They would be next door to her, and she would be able to talk to them through the walls,” Rocap said. In a clemency petition he sent to then Gov. Bob McDonnell in advance of Lewis’s scheduled execution, Rocap included numerous letters describing how Lewis had become a counselor and religious mentor to the women she met.

A library worker who brought books to the segregation building recalled giving Lewis a red hymnal that had been donated. “I heard stories from other inmates about how she would calm the cell block at night — one needs to understand the hysteria and craziness that goes on there at night — by talking to any inmate who was hysterical and then singing her hymns of comfort and joy,” she wrote. “It was the only way they survived their time in that horribly punishing environment.” Another woman recalled how she’d gotten through a particularly upsetting moment by singing “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan with her. For Lewis to be executed, she wrote, “a lot of women in the future will not have the blessed opportunity to be encouraged by her.”

The decision to kill a woman who was not only remorseful but also clearly doing more good than harm was emblematic of the death penalty’s cruelty and irrationality.

McDonnell rejected Lewis’s petition. To Rocap, the decision to kill a woman who was not only remorseful but also clearly doing more good than harm was emblematic of the death penalty’s cruelty and irrationality. In a testimonial he wrote after she was killed, Rocap recalled the last day of his client’s life, how she visited with her son and spoke on the phone with her daughter, later “consoling and encouraging those of us who had come to try to console and encourage her. She did not need it; we did.”

In her final moments, Lewis asked Rocap to pray with her and her spiritual adviser, prison chaplain Julie Perry. Separated by bars in a cell adjacent to the hallway that led to the execution chamber, “the three of us joined hands through the meal tray slot, awkwardly at first,” Rocap wrote. “Her left hand was cradled in both of mine.” At 8:45 p.m., prison guards came and tapped his shoulder, saying, “It’s time.”

A Washington Post reporter would later describe Rocap and Perry looking “crushed and exhausted” as they entered the witness area. Lewis was brought inside the execution chamber, “ushered by guards in blue uniforms who held her elbows.” The curtains closed while officials inserted the intravenous lines then reopened to show Lewis lying on the gurney, her arms outstretched. She asked if the daughter of her slain husband was present, then apologized. “I just want Kathy to know that I love you and I’m very sorry,” she said.

Rocap was struck by his client’s courage and faith before her death. But he describes the execution as an act of madness. “I just can’t imagine how anybody could be there and watch what happened, no matter who the person was, and come away thinking, ‘Yeah, that was good. … That is what we should be doing,’” he said. Afterward, he remembers telling people that more Americans should witness executions to see what was being done in their names.

Rocap was not directly involved in the abolition legislation. When it passed, he remembers saying to himself, “Why didn’t they do this 15 years ago, before Teresa’s case?” Although the case does not haunt him as frequently as it used to, memories of the execution return at unexpected times. He recalls some years back watching an episode of “The Good Wife” that began with a scene involving an execution chamber. “It wasn’t in Virginia, but it looked identical to the death chamber in Virginia,” he said. “I was watching it with my wife, and I literally had to get up and walk out of the room.”

Former executioner Jerry Givens attending a high school basketball game where some of the boys he mentors are playing on Jan. 15, 2013 in Richmond, VA.

Former executioner Jerry Givens attends a high school basketball game where some of the boys he mentors are playing on Jan. 15, 2013, in Richmond, Va.

Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Executioner’s Trauma

Of all those impacted by the executions in Virginia, perhaps no one carried more complex trauma than the people who carried them out. Jerry Givens executed 62 of the 113 people killed in the death chamber only to become a vocal death penalty abolitionist. Givens had kept his work a secret from his own family, hoping to protect them from the horror of what he was tasked with doing. He later told his story to audiences across the country. Some of his final speeches were delivered in Terre Haute, Indiana, home of the federal execution chamber, where he warned of the impact Donald Trump’s planned execution spree would have on prison employees. “People think you can do something like that and then go home and forget about it,” he said in the fall of 2019. “No. It’s something that is stuck with you.”

Givens did not live to see his home state abolish the death penalty: He died in April 2020 of Covid-19. But his influence was clear during the debate among lawmakers. Speaking on the floor of the state Senate in early February, Sen. Jennifer McClellan recalled hearing him testify in opposition to expanding the death penalty over the years. “I have heard the words of Jerry Givens over and over and over again in my mind,” she said. She remembered how haunted he had been by the case of Earl Washington, the man who falsely confessed and was later exonerated. “He realized the toll it would have taken on him had he executed an innocent man.”

Givens’s family was elated at the news that Virginia had finally abolished the death penalty. “I can recall the moment we found out the law was passed,” Valerie Travers, Givens’s niece, said in a phone call after the signing ceremony. “I think he would have been very happy to see that his work has finally paid off.” It was especially meaningful for Givens’s widow, Sadie. “I was rejoicing for him because I know what he put into it,” she said. For years, she had seen him “thinking, meditating, praying” over the issue. “I know deep within my soul that he visualized this happening. … He would always say ‘Things are gonna happen. This is gonna happen.’ … If there’s such thing as looking down, he’s rejoicing because he said it would.”

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