Almost 70 years after their unjust executions, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on Tuesday granted posthumous pardons to seven black men known as “Martinsville Seven”, who were executed for the alleged rape of a white woman in 1951 in Martinsville, Virginia.
Northam granted pardons after meeting with the descendants of the Martinsville Seven. He said the pardons were not about whether the men were guilty, but rather “served as an acknowledgment of the Commonwealth” that they had been tried without proper due process.
“This is about righting the wrongs,” Northam said in a press release. “We all deserve a fair, equal and well-functioning criminal justice system, no matter who you are or what you look like. Although we cannot change the past, I hope that today’s action will bring them a small measure of peace. “
The history of Martinsville Seven
Seven black men were executed in February 1951 for the alleged rape of a white woman, Ruby Stroud Floyd, in 1949. These are 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.
On the evening of January 8, 1949, Floyd accused 13 black men of raping her as she walked through a predominantly black neighborhood.
Floyd identified Grayson and Hampton as her rapists, but she struggled to identify the others, according to BlackPast.org, an online reference center for black history.
Henry Burroughs / AP
After being questioned by local police, the Martinsville Seven initially confessed to committing or witnessing the crime. The seven men were charged with rape.
Their trials and electrocutions became a controversial issue soon after the men were arrested.
The seven men were convicted and quickly sentenced to death as juries were made up entirely of white men, Northam’s office said.
Not all of the defendants were able to read the confessions they signed, and none of them was accompanied by a lawyer when questioned.
Almost two decades after their executions, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for rape was cruel and unusual punishment.
The death penalty in Virginia
Studies have shown that a defendant is more than three times more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim of a crime is white, compared to crimes where the victim is black.
Before abolishing the death penalty earlier this year, the Commonwealth executed more people than any other state. The 45 prisoners executed for rape from 1908 to 1951 in Virginia were black men, according to the governor’s office.
Steve Helber / AP
Northam granted 604 pardons during his tenure. His office said it was more forgiveness than the last nine governors combined.
“Pardons should not be part of the process of ensuring a fair and equitable justice system, but unfortunately it has been for far too long.” Commonwealth of Virginia Secretary Kelly Thomasson said in a statement.