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'These men were executed because they were Black and that's not right': Northam pardons Martinsville Seven who were executed in 1949 rape case
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'These men were executed because they were Black and that's not right': Northam pardons Martinsville Seven who were executed in 1949 rape case

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Gov. Northam offers posthumous pardons for Martinsville Seven

Seven Black men executed 70 years ago for the rape of a white woman in Martinsville were granted posthumous pardons Tuesday by Gov. Ralph Northam acknowledging they were denied due process of law and received racially biased death sentences.

Four of the “Martinsville Seven” died in Virginia’s electric chair on Feb. 2, 1951, and three died on Feb. 5, 1951. The executions were carried out over pleas for mercy from around the world; it was the most executions for a crime against a single person in state history.

“These men were executed because they were Black, and that’s not right,” said Northam, addressing at least five relatives of the seven and dozens of advocates in the Patrick Henry Building on Tuesday. The room broke out in applause, shouts, crying and hugging after he announced he was going to pardon the men.

The pardons do not address the guilt of the seven, but serve as recognition from the commonwealth that the men were tried without adequate due process and their death sentences were racially biased, said Northam’s office.

For much of Virginia’s history, the death penalty for rape was largely, if not exclusively, reserved for African Americans. From 1908, when Virginia began keeping central execution records, to 1951, when the seven were executed, all 45 people put to death for rape in Virginia were Black.

“Race played an undeniable role during the identification, investigation, conviction, and the sentencing of” the seven men, states the pardon, which notes each was found guilty in trials by juries of all white men.

The Martinsville Seven were Joe Henry Hampton, Frank Hairston Jr., Booker T. Millner, Howard Lee Hairston, Francis DeSales Grayson, John Clabon Taylor and James Luther Hairston.

Tuesday was Grayson’s birthday. Former Richmond Sheriff Andrew J. Winston was a young city magistrate in 1951 when he witnessed Grayson’s execution. In a 2004 story about the Martinsville Seven in the Richmond Times Dispatch, Winston, since deceased, said Grayson “was very composed. It appeared to me that they must have given him a sedative.”

“I would think they’d almost have to,” he said.

Some of the men’s descendants — including former Richmond mayor Rudolph McCollum Jr., Grayson’s great-nephew and Millner’s nephew, and James Grayson of Baltimore, Grayson’s son — were on hand for a meeting in the governor’s office Tuesday.

Before the meeting began Tuesday, McCollum, noting he was meeting some relatives for the first time, said, “It’s almost like a family reunion. The circumstance are weird, but it’s a beautiful thing.”

Prior to Northam’s announcement, McCollum, given a chance to address those in attendance, said of the executions, “It’s one particular wound that continues to mar Virginia history.”

James Grayson said, “I’m looking for forgiveness. I want closure. I want them to be able to realize that somebody cares.”

The seven pardons bring the total number of pardons issued by Northam since taking office to 604, more than the previous nine governors combined, said his office.

His office said Northam has acted on over 2,000 pardon petitions and that the large number of pending petitions is due to an influx received since he took office, coupled with the thousands of petitions that were pending review when former Gov. Terry McAuliffe took office in 2014.

Northam announced new steps to streamline the pardon process in May.

The pardons for the Martinsville Seven appear to be the first posthumous pardons granted in state history. While recognizing the punishments were unjust, they are not absolute pardons. All seven men were said to have confessed to some involvement in the Jan. 8, 1949, attack against the 32-year-old woman. The families, however, said the confessions were made under duress.

Guilt was not contested in their appeals. Instead, famed civil rights lawyers of the time — Oliver Hill, Martin A. Martin, Spottswood W. Robinson, Roland D. Ealey and others — used the state’s stark execution record to argue unsuccessfully on appeal that the death penalty for rape was applied in a discriminatory manner, reserved largely for Black people.

A petition requesting pardons was sent to Northam in December. It read, in part: “The Martinsville Seven were not given adequate due process ‘simply for being black,’ they were sentenced to death for a crime that a white person would not have been executed for ‘simply for being black,’ and they were killed, by the Commonwealth, ‘simply for being black.’”

Among the organizers pushing for pardons were Liz Ryan and Pamela Hairston, groups such as The Martinsville Seven Initiative Inc., the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop as well as law students and graduates from the William & Mary Law School.

The families asked for the meeting deliberately set for Grayson’s birthday so they could make their case for a pardon in person. Instead, they got a welcome surprise.

After the executions of the Martinsville Seven, three more men, all Black, died in the electric chair for rape, the last in 1961. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ended rape as a death-eligible crime.

“This is about righting wrongs,” said Northam in a prepared statement. “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. I’m grateful to the advocates and families of the Martinsville Seven for their dedication and perseverance. While we can’t change the past, I hope today’s action brings them some small measure of peace.”

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