JARRATT, Va. -- Gov. Ralph Northam signed historic legislation abolishing the death penalty in Virginia Wednesday afternoon after touring the death chamber at the Greensville Correction Center.
"I don't know how else to describe it, but other than say that it is a powerful thing to stand in the room where people have been put to death," Northam remarked. "And know that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. And it reinforced me that signing this new law is the right thing to do. It is the moral thing to do to end the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia."
The landmark bill marks a dramatic shift in a state that has put to death nearly 1,400 people since its days as a colony.
"Like other southern states, the racism and discrimination of our past still echoes in our systems today," Northam said. "And as we continue to step beyond the burden of that past, it is vital that we also change the systems in which inequality continue to fester. We've started by reforming other criminal sentencing laws and other work to pry unjust policies out of the fabric of our criminal justice system. And then the death penalty is the next vital step in that process. There is no place today for the death penalty in this Commonwealth, in the south, or in this nation."
In modern times, the state is second only to Texas in executions carried out, with 113 since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Northam said his stance on the death penalty has evolved.
"Like many people, when I was young, I believed in an eye for an eye," he said. "But as I mature, my mind changed. And when I ran for office, I committed to work on ending the death penalty in Virginia. And as I have learned more about how the death penalty is applied in this country, I can say that the death penalty is fundamentally flawed. Most importantly, we know that the system doesn't always get it right."
Virginia’s new Democratic majority won a major political battle last month when the House and Senate approved the legislation to end capital punishment.