Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation on Wednesday abolishing the state’s death penalty, following through on his promise to outlaw capital punishment in a state that has executed more prisoners than any other.
At a ceremony at the Greensville Correctional Center, where the state houses its death row, the governor said the move would help reform an imperfect justice system.
“Justice and punishment are not always the same thing. We can’t give out the ultimate punishment without knowing we are always right,” Northam, a Democrat, said. “This government will no longer take a life.”
Northam added that the death penalty is disproportionately used against Black people, who accounted for 296 of the 377 inmates executed by the state in the 20th century.
Virginia, which last carried out an out an execution in 2017, has conducted 1,390 since 1608, when it was a British colony. Texas, which became a U.S. state in 1846, is in second place, but leads by a wide margin since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Twenty-seven other states along with the federal government still have the death penalty, according to tracking site deathpenaltyinfo.org and the Death Penalty Information Center.
Two men remain on Virginia’s death row, including Thomas Porter, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 2005. Northam said those issued the death penalty will remain in prison without parole.
Sarah Craft, the Death Penalty Program Director with the group, Equal Justice USA, applauded the move.
“This is the final action of a crushing blow against the death penalty, one of our nation’s most visible and egregious responses to violence,” she said in a statement.
“It is part of our country’s reckoning with a deep and wide legacy of racial injustice,” she added.
Democrat Joe Biden took office as the first U.S. president to commit to seeking to abolish the federal death penalty.