If you are charged with murder in Virginia, you must be represented by an aggressive and effective Roanoke criminal defense lawyer, but you won’t face the ultimate penalty. In March of this year, Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in Virginia.

The new legislation represents an enormous change to Virginia’s criminal justice system. Capital punishment has been a part of the law in Virginia for more than 400 years. More than 1,300 executions have been conducted in Virginia since the first execution in Jamestown in 1608.

How did this historic legal change come about? And what effect will the abolition of capital punishment have on murder cases in Virginia in the future?

If you’ll keep reading, you will learn the answers to these questions, and you will also learn where to find the legal help you will need if you are charged with murder or manslaughter in Virginia in 2021 or beyond.

Why Was Capital Punishment Abolished Now?

The possibility of executing an innocent person has always been a reason for opposing the death penalty, but another reason for the death penalty’s abolition in Virginia – especially at this particular time – is a rising awareness of its fundamental unfairness.

Of the 377 Virginia inmates who were executed for murder in the 20th century, 296 – or about 79 percent – were black, in a state where black residents comprise about 20 percent of the population.

Virginia is the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, and the action comes at a time when opposition to capital punishment has been growing nationally. President Joe Biden and his new Attorney General, Merrick Garland, have both expressed opposition to the death penalty.

What Formerly Constituted Capital Murder in Virginia?

Previously, a defendant could be charged with capital murder in Virginia – and punished with death if convicted – if that defendant, in one of fifteen precise circumstances spelled out by Virginia law, killed willfully, deliberately, and with premeditation:

  1. an abductee during an abduction intended to extort money or to defile the abductee
  2. as a contract killer for hire
  3. while in prison or in the custody of a correctional facility employee
  4. during a robbery or an attempted robbery
  5. during or after rape or attempted rape, forcible sodomy, or attempted forcible sodomy or object sexual penetration
  6. a police officer, auxiliary police officer, deputy sheriff, or fire marshal to prevent the victim from performing his or her official duties
  7. multiple victims in a single criminal act
  8. multiple victims within a three-year period
  9. while committing or attempting a violation involving the distribution of a Schedule I or II controlled substance in order to commit or continue committing that crime
  10. pursuant to the direction or order of one who is engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise for the purposes of the distribution of a Schedule I or II controlled substance
  11. a pregnant woman when the perpetrator is aware of the pregnancy and intends to cause an involuntary termination of the pregnancy
  12. anyone younger than 14 if the perpetrator is 21 or older
  13. while committing or attempting a crime of terrorism
  14. any Virginia judge in order to interfere with the victim’s official duties
  15. a witness in a criminal proceeding, when the witness has been subpoenaed, in order to interfere with the proceeding

What Replaces Capital Murder in Virginia?

What was capital murder, however, is now aggravated murder, and aggravated murder is now punishable upon conviction with life in prison. In 2021, for the first time in over 400 years, there is no capital punishment in Virginia.

To convict you of aggravated murder, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your action was premeditated, intentional, and deliberate. The state also must prove that you killed in one of the fifteen circumstances listed above.

Without all of these elements, you may be convicted of a lesser homicide charge, but you cannot be convicted of aggravated murder.

What Constitutes First-Degree or Second-Degree Murder?

Virginia’s other, lesser homicide charges remain unchanged. They are first-degree murder, second-degree murder, felony murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter.

In Virginia, first-degree murder is a Class 2 felony punishable upon conviction with twenty years to life in prison and/or a fine of up to $100,000. Premeditation is a key element in aggravated and first-degree murder, while the lack of premeditation is what distinguishes second-degree murder.

Attempted first-degree murder is a Class 4 felony punishable upon conviction with up to ten years in prison and/or a fine of up to $100,000.

While premeditation is not an element of second-degree murder, malice is a key element. Second-degree murders are malicious and intentional murders that were not premeditated. Second-degree murder is punishable upon conviction with five to forty years in prison.

What Constitutes Voluntary or Involuntary Manslaughter?

In Virginia, voluntary manslaughter happens who one person kills another while temporarily emotionally disturbed or “in the heat of the moment.” This can happen, for example, when someone acts in self-defense but overreacts and ends up killing the other person.

Involuntary manslaughter happens when someone unintentionally causes someone else’s death in circumstances so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a callous disregard of human life. An example of involuntary manslaughter is a traffic or boating incident when the driver or boat operator causes a fatal accident because he or she is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Voluntary and involuntary manslaughter are both Class 5 felonies punishable upon conviction with one to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.

Additionally, aggravated involuntary manslaughter is a DUI related charge, and you can be convicted if the court determines that a defendant’s conduct was wanton, gross, and exhibited a reckless disregard for the lives of others. The possible sentence is not less than one nor more than 20 years, one year of which shall be a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment.

If You Are Charged With a Homicide

Every homicide is tragic, and a homicide case forever changes the lives of everyone involved. If you are charged with a homicide in or near Roanoke, you must be defended by a Roanoke criminal defense lawyer who effectively represents those charged with the most serious crimes.

If you are placed under arrest and charged with murder or manslaughter, exercise your rights, remain silent, and arrange to meet with a Roanoke criminal defense attorney at the first possible opportunity.