RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam granted posthumous pardons Tuesday for a group of Black men executed 70 years ago for allegedly raping a white woman in Martinsville, Virginia.
The pardons do not address the guilt of the group known as the "Martinsville Seven." Instead, Northam said he issued the pardons "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."
“This is about righting wrongs,” Northam said in a statement released by his office along with a copy of the pardon. “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."
He added: "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.”
The seven men, ranging in age from 18-37 years old, were arrested in 1949 for the reported rape of 32-year-old Ruby Stroud Floyd, a white woman who lived in Martinsville. Each were tried and sentenced to death within an eight-day period by all-white juries.
Former Richmond Mayor Rudy McCollum, who was related to two of the Martinsville Seven, was one of those pushing for the pardon. He said Tuesday afternoon he and the other family members were "elated" by the news.
"This action has been long overdue for a wound for the families which can finally heal with the closure of this matter through the recognition by the commonwealth that these men were denied their due process under law solely because of the color of their skin," McCullom said in an email to The Progress-Index, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.
According to court records, some of the men admitted to "having intercourse" with Floyd, but they claimed they were drunk and did not remember holding her down as the victim had claimed. Northam's pardon also said the men did not understand the confessions they were signing.
The Martinsville Seven 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. All seven died in Virginia's electric chair over a three-day period in February 1951.
"[T]he Commonwealth of Virginia played an irrefutable role in the political, economic, and social disenfranchisement of Black Americans, and helped shape, actively enforce, and uphold the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws which were formed to further systematically oppress Black Americans and maintain the status quo of the time," Northam's pardon read. The pardon also said that race "played an undeniable role during the identification, investigation, conviction, and the sentencing."
According to Northam's office, there were 45 executions for rape from 1908-1951, and all of those killed were Black. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that the death penalty was considered cruel and unusual punishment for rape.
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Virginia abolished the death penalty earlier this year. Between 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, and this year, the commonwealth executed 113 people, second only to Texas during that time. Since its establishment as a colony in the 17th century, historical records indicate Virginia has carried out more than 1,400 executions.
A group seeking pardons for the Martinsville Seven contacted the governor's office last February about the matter, according to a report in the Martinsville Bulletin newspaper.
Tuesday's action brought the number of pardons Northam has issued as governor to 604, which his office said was more than the nine preceding governors combined.
Follow Bill Atkinson on Twitter at @BAtkinson_PI