RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The effort to make Virginia the first state in the South to repeal the death penalty seems all but certain. Gov. Ralph Northam plans to sign legislation approved Monday that would prevent the state from using capital punishment under any circumstance.
While it’s not expected to make an impact for most people, the impending rule change will prevent Virginia from executing the two men on its death row: Thomas Alexander Porter and Anthony B. Juniper.
If Virginia’s push to abolish the death penalty had failed, the schedule called for their executions to be held in 2023 and 2024. This new legislation commutes the death sentences of Porter and Juniper to life without the possibility of parole, the maximum penalty in Virginia under the approved measure.
Anthony B. Juniper
Anthony B. Juniper, 49, was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend, Keshia Stephens, her two daughters, 4-year-old Nykia and 2-year-old Shearyia, and Stephens’ brother, Rueben Harrison, on Jan. 16, 2004.
All four were found dead in Keshia’s apartment in Norfolk.
According to police, authorities arrived at the scene to find that Stephens’ apartment door had been forced open. Stepehens had been stabbed through her stomach and shot three times, with one bullet grazing her. A medical examiner concluded it was likely that Keshia was stabbed first but that it was not fatal.
Court documents state that Shearyia, 2, was in Keshia’s arms when she was shot four times. Nykia, 4, was shot once behind her left ear and was found lying on top of Harrison, who had been shot three times.
“The medical examiner testified that the bullet’s path was consistent with Nykia ducking her head and body toward the shooter prior to being shot,” read court documents filed during Juniper’s appeal process in the Virginia Supreme Court in 2006. “In addition, the presence of blood in Nykia’s lungs indicated that she had taken one or two breaths between being shot and dying.”
According to court documents, evidence was presented that Juniper was “involved in an on-again, off-again tumultuous relationship” with Stephens for two years and had asked one of his friends to take him to her apartment to pick up belongings on the day of the murders. Juniper and Stephens were heard arguing before several large “booms” were heard.
In the end, DNA evidence and witness testimony led to Juniper being convicted of four counts of capital murder.
Experts testified that a fingerprint found on the knife used on Stephens had 23 matching characteristics to Juniper’s right thumb and his DNA profile matched on the knife handle and a cigarette butt found on the floor by Stephens’ door. One witness said Juniper confessed when they were both in the medical pod at Hampton Roads Regional Jail, testifying that Juniper said he killed the children in order to not leave any witnesses.
Juniper’s appeal efforts in the state were rejected, leading his attorneys to request a stay to the U.S. Supreme Court. That attempt, an uncommon path that avoided lower federal courts, was denied.
In 2011, Juniper was scheduled to be executed and had even been moved to Greensville Correctional Center, where the state’s death chamber is located, from Sussex I prison before U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney, Jr. issued a stay.
Thomas Alexander Porter
On Oct. 28, 2005, Thomas Alexander Porter went with a friend, identified as Reginald Copeland in court filings, to buy marijuana at a Norfolk apartment complex. The person who was supposed to sell the marijuana did not have any, angering Porter and leading him to take out a gun.
Copeland left the apartment but Porter remained inside and locked the door, prompting a concerned Copeland to inform three police officers about Porter’s behavior. One officer with the Norfolk Police Department, Stanley Reaves, stopped to question Porter after he left the apartment, court documents assert.
After telling Porter to take his hands out of his pockets, Reaves grabbed Porter. Porter took his gun out and shot Reaves in the head, one witness said. According to court filings, Porter shot Reaves twice after he hit the ground.
Porter, who was a convicted felon, left for New York City after the shooting but was caught the next month in White Plains, N.Y., with the murder weapon. In 2007, Porter was convicted and sentenced to death in Norfolk Circuit Court.
While Porter’s appeal efforts were rejected twice in federal district courts, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back for reconsideration due to Porter’s claim that a juror was biased. In August, a federal judge denied Porter’s appeal after ruling the juror had given reassurances they would be impartial even though their brother was a law enforcement officer.
The Death Penalty in Virginia
During this year’s session of the General Assembly, lawmakers in each chamber of the Democratic-controlled legislature gave final approval to two bills to abolish the death penalty.
The Virginia Senate voted 22-16, with state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) joining Democrats, and the House of Delegates approved the state Senate’s own version of the bill, 57-43, on Monday.
Despite the historic vote, executions have not been readily used in the commonwealth during the last decade. Virginia has not executed anyone since 2017 and a jury has not given out a death sentence since 2011.