Nearly 70 years after their unjust executions, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam granted posthumous pardons Tuesday to seven Black men known as the “Martinsville Seven,” who were executed for the alleged rape of a white woman in 1951 in Martinsville, Va.
Northam granted the pardons after a meeting with the descendants of the Martinsville Seven. He said the pardons do not address whether the men were guilty, but rather serve “as recognition from the Commonwealth” that they were tried without adequate due process.
“This is about righting wrongs,” Northam said in a news release. “We all deserve a criminal justice system that is fair, equal, and gets it right—no matter who you are or what you look like. While we can’t change the past, I hope today’s action brings them some small measure of peace.”
The history behind the Martinsville Seven
Seven Black men were executed in February 1951 over the alleged rape of a white woman, Ruby Stroud Floyd, in 1949. They were Frank Hairston Jr., 18, Booker T. Millner, 19, Francis DeSales Grayson, 37, Howard Lee Hairston, 18, James Luther Hairston, 20, Joe Henry Hampton, 19, and John Claybon Taylor, 21.
Floyd said 13 Black men raped her on the evening of Jan. 8, 1949, as she passed through a predominately Black neighborhood.
Floyd identified both Grayson and Hampton as her rapists, but she had trouble identifying the others, according to BlackPast.org, an online reference center for Black history.
After they were interrogated by local police officers, the Martinsville Seven initially confessed to committing or witnessing the crime. All seven men were charged with rape.
Their trials and electrocutions became a controversial issue shortly after the men were arrested.
The seven men were convicted and swiftly sentenced to death by juries made up of only white men, Northam’s office said.
Not all of the defendants were able to read the confessions they signed, and none of them had a lawyer with them as they were questioned.
Nearly two decades after their executions, the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment for rape was cruel and unusual punishment.
The death penalty in Virginia
Studies have shown that a defendant is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death if the victim of a crime is white, compared with when the victim is Black.
Prior to abolishing the death penalty earlier this year, the commonwealth had executed nearly 1,400 people since 1608. All 45 of the prisoners executed for rape from 1908 to 1951 in Virginia were Black men, according to the governor’s office.
Northam has granted 604 pardons during his time in office. His office said that’s more pardons than the past nine governors combined.
“Pardons should not have to be a part of the process to ensure a fair and equitable justice system, but unfortunately that’s been the case for far too long,” Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson said in a release.