Virginia's governor signed legislation Wednesday making it the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, a dramatic shift for the commonwealth, which had the second-highest number of executions in the US. The bills were the culmination of a yearslong battle by Democrats who argued the death penalty has been applied disproportionately to people of color, the mentally ill, and the poor, the AP reports. Republicans argued that the death penalty should remain a sentencing option for especially heinous crimes and to bring justice to victims and their families. Virginia’s new Democratic majority, in full control of the General Assembly for a second year, won the debate last month when both the Senate and House of Delegates passed measures banning capital punishment.
Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed the House and Senate bills in a ceremony under a tent Wednesday after touring the execution chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center, where 102 people have been put to death since executions were moved there from the Virginia State Penitentiary in the early 1990s. "There is no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the South, or in this nation," Northam said. Virginia has executed nearly 1,400 people since its days as a colony. In modern times, the state is second only to Texas in the number of executions it has carried out, with 113 since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. The state's two remaining death row prisoners will have their sentences converted to life in prison without parole. (Read more death penalty stories.)