Since he took office in 2006, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has vetoed 15 bills making everyone from murder accomplices to killers of on-duty auxiliary police or fire marshals eligible for the death penalty. Legislators have overridden some of Kaine's vetoes, and currently there are 15 crimes that are punishable by death in Virginia.
Republican Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell has said he will sign legislation to expand the death penalty, even though other states are restricting capital punishment or repealing it altogether.
Opponents argue expansion would be costly as the state grapples with billions in revenue shortfalls and increase the risk of sending an innocent person to death row.
"I don't believe that any of these are going to result in a significant difference in the number of capital prosecutions in Virginia," said Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), noting that many of the bills blocked in the past would have applied to very few crimes.
A month before Virginia's legislators return to Richmond, Obenshain again filed legislation to eliminate Virginia's triggerman rule, which reserves capital punishment for the person who actually does the killing and, he says, "allows rape-murderers, child-murderers and cop-killers to avoid the death penalty if they get somebody else to pull the trigger."
Of the 35 death penalty states, 24 allow accomplices to face capital punishment. Obenshain said not doing so produces "illogical" results when two people commit a crime but only one can face death.
The bill has passed the last three years - even in the Democrat-controlled Senate - but Kaine vetoed it. Each year, senators came up a couple votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto. The next legislative session begins Jan. 13.
Many states are trying to reduce the number of death penalty cases.
New Mexico lawmakers voted this year to abolish the death penalty, and 10 other states considered repealing it. Gov. Jodi Rell vetoed a measure to abolish it in Connecticut. In Maryland, lawmakers limited when prosecutors can seek the death penalty.
Attempts to expand the death penalty in other states were unsuccessful.
An effort to allow a death sentence without a unanimous jury in Georgia was defeated, as was an attempt to expand qualifying crimes in New Hampshire, where capital punishment is rare. Attempts to reinstate the death penalty in Alaska, West Virginia and Massachusetts also failed.
"A change in administration sometimes marks a political change, but the facts haven't really changed," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes the death penalty.
The center published a report in early December that showed dramatic drops in both death sentences and executions nationwide. It attributes that to fears of executing the innocent, the high cost of capital punishment and laws that allow inmates to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
"Politically, it's a tempting way to go - stand up and push for the death penalty. But I think there's also a reality: More death penalty is more costly, there's no way around that," Dieter said.
Kansas lawmakers are scheduled to debate a proposal in January to abolish the death penalty based almost entirely on the argument that it is too expensive. A recent study there found that seeking the death penalty in Kansas costs four times more in legal fees, and housing death row inmates costs an additional $1,000 a year.
A similar study is under way in Virginia, where the corrections system has lost millions of dollars in funding since July 2008 as Kaine worked to cut state spending by $10 billion.
McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said the governor-elect believes the death penalty is rightly reserved for the most heinous and violent crimes, and that money is not a consideration.
"The governor-elect views it as a criminal justice and public safety matter, not as a potential source of budget savings," Martin said.
Virginia has executed 105 inmates, more than any state except Texas, since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Texas has executed 447.
Kaine, a Democrat and a Roman Catholic, opposes the death penalty but has allowed 11 executions and commuted one death sentence. There are currently 14 people on Virginia's death row.
Opponents say expanding the death penalty, especially to those not directly responsible for a death, opens the door to discrimination.
"It will not make the citizens of Virginia any safer and will exacerbate the already arbitrary application on the basis of race and geography," said Beth Panilaitis, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.