Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (seated) signs legislation repealing the death penalty in the state surrounded by members of the General Assembly on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Gov. Ralph Northam's office
March 24 (UPI) -- Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday signed legislation making the state the 23rd in the country to abolish the death penalty.
His signature comes one month after both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly gave their approval to the bill.
"The death penalty system is fundamentally flawed -- it is inequitable, ineffective, and it has no place in this commonwealth or this country," Northam said. "Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death.
"Abolishing this inhumane practice is the moral thing to do."
In addition to banning the use of the death penalty, the law establishes a maximum penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole and gives judges discretion to suspend part of sentences. It also commutes the sentences of the two men on Virginia's death row to life without parole.
Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation in the upper chamber, thanked Northam for his public endorsement of the repeal.
"He's going to restore Virginia to its position of leadership not just in the country but also in the world, as a society, as a government that values civil rights that values your rights against the government, that values things like trial by jury," Surovell in a ceremony ahead of the signing.
"I never dreamed that Virginia would change as fast as it did."
In addition to the 23 states that have banned use of the death penalty, three others -- California, Oregon and Pennsylvania -- have a governor-imposed moratorium on the punishment.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Virginia's abolition is indicative of a nationwide decline in support for the death penalty and a greater focus on race relations.
"The commonwealth's death penalty has deep roots in slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow segregation," he said in a statement Wednesday. "The symbolic value of a legislature sitting in the former capital of the Confederacy dismantling this tool of racial oppression cannot be overstated."
A Gallup poll in November found that 55% of Americans favor executing criminals convicted of murder, its lowest point since 1972. President Joe Biden has promised to work toward repeal at the federal level.