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Virginia is the 23rd state to ban the death penalty. Photo: Getty Images

Virginia officially bans the death penalty, joining 22 other states

It’s a major achievement for Governor Ralph Northam, who campaigned on ending the practice.

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On Wednesday March 24, Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law the abolition of the death penalty in the state of Virginia, making it the first Southern state to ban capital punishment. 

SB 1165, the bill that sought to end the death penalty in the state, passed in the state’s Senate with a 21-17 vote on Wednesday, Feb. 3. 

In an interview the next day, Gov. Northam, who’s been an enthusiastic advocate for progressive laws, claimed that the move is long overdue.

“It’s important that we shut down the machinery of death here in Virginia,” Northam said.

During remarks ahead of signing the legislation, Northam said that it is both the right and moral thing to do. 

“Justice and punishment are not always the same thing, that is too clearly evident in 400 years of the death penalty in Virginia,” the Democratic governor said. 

Northam called attention to the fundamental flaws in the death penalty, claiming that the system doesn’t have the best track record with always “getting it right.” 

While he opposes capital punishment, he made a point to say that he is not becoming soft on criminal justice in general. 

“Make no mistake — if you commit the most serious of crimes, you will be punished,” he said. 

Virginia now joins 22 other states that have already banned the death penalty, including Maryland, Colorado, New Hampshire and Connecticut. 

At Greensville Correctional Center, Gov. Northam spoke to NBC News just moments after the bill was signed into law, and talked how important the law is for him and what it means for the past and future of Virginia. 

“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 campaigned for governor with a strong promise to sign this very law, telling NBC News of the ways that capital punishment has been used in ways that increase inequities. 

A total of 1,390 people have been put to death in Virginia. 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. 

Highlighting the inequities, Northam said that the “great majority” of those individuals were African-American.  

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

NBC News was with Northam as he took a tour of the execution chamber as well as the holding cells for death row inmates. He described this experience as “powerful,” and “unforgettable.” It was a reaffirmation for him that abolition of this practice was the right thing. 

Northam said that in his lifetime he would like to see the remaining 27 states follow in their footsteps and abolish the death penalty. 

“I just think it’s the right thing to do,” he told NBC reporter Geoff Bennett. 

LaKeisha Cook, of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said in a statement that the state’s legacy with capital punishment is very closely correlated 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," Cook said.

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