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Virginia becomes 1st Southern state to abolish death penalty as governor signs law

Gov. Ralph Northam signed the legislation Wednesday. There were 1,390 people put to death in the state, the first documented time was in the Jamestown colony in 1608.
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JARRATT, Va. — Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday signed legislation to officially abolish the death penalty in Virginia, making it the first Southern state to ban capital punishment.

“Justice and punishment are not always the same thing, that is too clearly evident in 400 years of the death penalty in Virginia,” Northam, a Democrat, said during remarks ahead of signing the legislation, saying that it is both the right and the moral thing to do.

“I can say the death penalty is fundamentally flawed,” he said. “We know the system doesn’t always get it right,” he said, adding, “Make no mistake — if you commit the most serious of crimes, you will be punished.”

While Virginia has now become the first state of the former Confederacy to ban the death penalty, it is the 23rd state to ban it, following Colorado last year. Neighboring Maryland, which the Census Bureau classifies as a Southern state, abolished the death penalty in 2013.

In an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Geoff Bennett at the Greensville Correctional Center moments after the signing, Northam spoke of how the legislation was a priority for him and what it means for Virginia’s past and future.

IMage: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam looks at a gurney at Greensville Correctional Center with Operations Director George Hinkle on March 24, 2021.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam looks at a gurney at Greensville Correctional Center with Operations Director George Hinkle on March 24, 2021.Steve Helber / AP

“It's an opportunity for us to reflect on our history, to acknowledge that there are a lot of things that were not good about our history, and to really right a wrong,” he said.

Northam, who ran for governor on a campaign promise to abolish the death penalty, spoke of the inequity of its use in Virginia.

“When one looks at the history, close to 1,400 individuals have been executed,” he said. “The great majority of those individuals were African American. And so that number was disproportionate. The fence, the representation of African Americans has no doubt been disproportionate.”

According to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center, Virginia has imposed capital punishment since the Colonial times and ahead of the rest of the country, with the commonwealth having executed a higher percentage of death row inmates than any other state in the modern era of capital punishment.

A total of 1,390 people have been put to death in Virginia, with the first documented instance being a spy for Spain executed in the Jamestown colony in 1608. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people total. But no jury in the state has handed down a death sentence since 2011 and no one has been executed since 2017.

The last execution to take place at the Greensville Correctional Center was of Robert Gleason, a convicted murderer who was put to death in 2013.

When asked what he would say to those who argue some crimes are so heinous that capital punishment is the proper solution, Northam said, “Two wrongs don't make a right.”

NBC News was with Northam when he toured the execution chamber and holding cells for death row inmates ahead of the signing, led by Harold Clarke, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, and George Hinkle, Regional Operations Chief.

Northam said the experience of seeing it firsthand “was very powerful and I will never forget it, and it just reaffirms that we're doing the right thing today.”

Northam, who is also a physician, added, “especially as a doctor, I saw the gurney where individuals are placed and strapped down and an IV is started, and then they're provided a lethal injection that ends their life. I, as a doctor, I put a lot of IVs in, but I administer a medicine or fluid that maintains life.”

Within the execution room, there was an electric chair and a lethal injection gurney, along with a witness viewing area behind a glass encasing. Offenders were given a choice of the electric chair or a lethal injection, with Clarke telling Northam that of the last five who were executed, only one opted for the chair.

In the room next door, there were three different holding cells for inmates, who would typically be transferred to that location five days before they were scheduled to be put to death. There is also a red phone mounted on the wall, with a direct line to the Virginia governor’s office, as they would receive updates from inside the chamber back at the state Capitol as the execution process would unfold.

It’s not clear whether the chamber will stay in place moving forward. Executions in Virginia have been carried out at Greensville since it was moved from the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1991, with the men's death row located at the Sussex I State Prison in Waverly and the women's death row at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in the town of Troy.

He said he’d like to see all states in the country abolish the death penalty in his lifetime. “I just think it's the right thing to do.”

LaKeisha Cook, of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said in a statement that the state's legacy on the death penalty was so closely connected to its history of slavery and lynching.

"Now that it is coming to an end, we can start a new chapter that embraces an evidence-based approach to public safety: One that values the dignity of all human beings and is focused on transforming the justice system into one rooted in fairness, accountability, and redemption," she said.