Gov. Ralph Northam officially pardoned the “Martinsville Seven” Tuesday, nearly 70 years after their wrongful executions. The defendants were executed for allegedly raping a white woman in 1951 in Martinsville, Virginia.
“Righting” Historical Wrongs
After meeting with descendants of the Martinsville Seven, Northam granted the pardons. According to him, pardons have nothing to do with guilt or innocence, but rather serve “as recognition from the Commonwealth” that the defendants were tried without 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.”
Martinsville Seven – How it all began
In February 1951, seven Black men were hanged for allegedly raping 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.
On the evening of Jan. 8, 1949, Floyd was raped by 13 Black men as she passed through a predominantly Black neighborhood. According to BlackPast.org, an online reference center for Black history, Floyd recognized Grayson and Hampton as her attackers but was unable to identify the others.
White Women Falsely Claiming Black Men Raped Them: An American Tradition
During an interrogation by the local police, the Martinsville Seven initially admitted that they had seen or committed the crime. Studies have shown that due to the psychological pressures of police interrogation many have admitted to committing crimes they never did. All seven men were charged with rape. After the men were arrested, their trials and electrocutions became a controversial issue.
Northam’s office said only white men served on the juries that convicted the men and sentenced them to death. Almost two decades after their executions, the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment for rape is cruel and unusual punishment.
The death penalty in Virginia
Studies indicate that a defendant may receive the death penalty three times as often when the victim of the crime is white, as opposed to a black victim. Until the death penalty was abolished earlier this year, the commonwealth had executed over 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 Issues Pardons
Since taking office, Northam has issued 604 pardons. More pardons were granted by his office 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,” Kelly Thomasson, the Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth, said in a release.