… capital punishments, which exterminate instead of reforming … should be the last melancholy resource against those whose existence is become inconsistent with the safety of their fellow citizens … cruel and sanguinary [bloodthirsty] laws defeat their own purpose …no crime shall be henceforth punished by deprivation of life or limb except …
If a man do levy war against the Commonwealth or be adherent to the enemies of the commonwealth giving to them aid or comfort … the person so convicted shall suffer death by hanging, and shall forfeit his lands and goods to the Commonwealth.
If any person commit Petty treason, or a husband murder his wife, a parent his child, or a child his parent, he shall suffer death by hanging, and his body be delivered to Anatomists to be dissected.
Whosoever committeth murder by poisoning shall suffer death by poison.
Whosoever committeth murder by way of duel, shall suffer death by hanging; and if he were the challenger, his body, after death, shall be gibbeted [displayed publicly] …Whosoever shall commit murder in any other way shall suffer death by hanging.… Whenever sentence of death shall have been pronounced against any person for treason or murder, execution shall be done on the next day …
You can read the full Bill here.
A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments, 1779
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Jefferson spent the Revolutionary War years helping revise Virginia’s colonial statutes into ones more suited for a modern, free and independent state. These excerpts come from his “A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments.”
Though I can’t find the documentation now, I have read that Virginia had many capital offenses, perhaps two dozen for which a man could be put to death. Jefferson’s proposal restricted that harshest punishment for just two crimes, treason and murder.
The remainder of the bill outlined lesser offenses and their penalties. As the title of the bill described, the purpose was to make the punishment fit the crime.
Traitors would forfeit all their estate to the government. A murderer’s estate was to divided, half the the victim’s family, half to his heirs.
Jefferson’s bill was considered too lenient and not adopted. Nearly 20 years later, the Virginia legislature did restrict capital punishment to these two offenses.
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