Advocates hope the move will lead to an end to capital punishment in the US south, where most executions occur.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation on Wednesday making Virginia the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, a dramatic shift for the commonwealth, which had the second-highest number of executions in the United States.
“There is no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the south or in this nation,” Northam said shortly before signing the legislation.
The bills were the culmination of a years-long battle by Democrats who argued the death penalty has been applied disproportionately to people of colour, the mentally ill and the poor.
Republicans unsuccessfully 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 the House of Delegates passed bills banning capital punishment.
National and local rights groups applauded the measure.
Kristina Roth, senior advocate for the Criminal Justice Programs at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement the organisation welcomes the news.
“The death penalty is irreversible, it is ineffective, and it does not deter crime … We hope to see more states work to retire this most extreme punishment to where it belongs – as a relic of the past, not a part of our future,” Roth concluded.
“Virginia’s legacy on the death penalty was so closely connected to its history of slavery and lynching,” Reverend LaKeisha Cook, a justice reform organiser with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said in a statement delivered to Al Jazeera.
Northam, a Democrat, signed the House and Senate bills in a ceremony under a tent on 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.
Northam said the death penalty has been disproportionately applied to Black people and is the product of a flawed judicial system that doesn’t always get it right. Since 1973, more than 170 people have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence was uncovered, he said.
“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.”
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.
Only two men remain on Virginia’s death row: Anthony Juniper, who was sentenced to death in the 2004 slayings of his ex-girlfriend, two of her children, and her brother; and Thomas Porter, who was sentenced to death for the 2005 killing of a Norfolk police officer. Their sentences will now be commuted to life in prison without parole.
In addition to the 23 states that have now abolished the death penalty, three others have moratoriums in place that were imposed by their governors.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the legislation could mark the beginning of the end for capital punishment in the south, where most executions currently take place.
“Virginia’s death penalty has deep roots in slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow segregation,” Dunham told The Associated Press news agency. “The symbolic value of dismantling this tool that has been used historically as a mechanism for racial oppression by a legislature sitting in the former capital of the Confederacy can’t be overstated.”