Seven Black men were unjustly executed and tried without due process more than 70 years ago after being accused of raping a white woman in Martinsville, Virginia in 1949. Well, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pardoned the men posthumously on Tuesday. "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."
Northam’s office said in the release that the pardon does not address guilt but serves as “recognition from the Commonwealth that these men were tried without adequate due process and received a racially-biased death sentence not similarly applied to white defendants.” Their names 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 Clabon Taylor, 21, and they were executed in 1951. Leading up to their trials, the men were interrogated without their attorneys present then convicted and sentenced by all-white, male juries. “Some of the defendants were impaired at the time of arrest or unable to read the confessions they signed,” the governor’s office said.
The men were accused of raping Ruby Stroud Floyd, who said at the time that 13 Black men committed the crime against her while she was passing through a mostly Black neighborhood, NPR reported. The Martinsville Seven were part of the 45 prisoners executed after being convicted of rape from 1908 to 1951. “In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty for rape was cruel and unusual punishment,” the Virginia governor’s office said in its news release.
Virginia became the first state in the South to abolish the death penalty as a whole in March, NPR reported. "The death penalty is the direct descendant of lynching. It is state-sponsored racism, and we have an opportunity to end this today," said Democratic Del. Jay Jones on the floor of Virginia's House of Delegates in February.
Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told NPR the controversy regarding unearthed photos of the governor in blackface may have had an impact on the governor’s priorities. "I think the governor's blackface scandal certainly predisposed him to being far more sensitive about racial justice issues," Stone said. Northam has repeatedly apologized for the photo from a medical school yearbook in 1984. He said in a statement released in 2019 when the scandal surfaced that he is "deeply sorry" and that the photo "is not in keeping with who I am today."
Hehas granted a "record-breaking" 604 pardons and acted on more than 2,000 pardon petitions, his office said. "The large number of pending petitions is a result of an influx received by the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth under the Northam administration, coupled with the thousands of petitions that were already pending review when former Governor Terry McAuliffe took office in 2014," the governor's office said. "In May, Governor Northam announced new steps to streamline the pardon process, including increased staff, a redesigned pardons website, and a new petition portal that allows electronic tracking submission and tracking of pardon requests."
Northam said of the recent pardons: “These men were executed because they were Black, and that’s not right. Today, we’re here to acknowledge the wrong that was done to these seven men.”