Northam grants posthumous pardons to 7 Black men executed in 1951 rape of white woman

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/AP) — Virginia Governor Ralph Northam granted posthumous pardons to a group of young Black men, known as the Martinsville Seven, who were executed for the alleged rape of a white woman in 1951. The announcement was made in Richmond during a meeting with the descendants of the Martinsville Seven.

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) of Martinsville were all convicted of raping 32-year-old Ruby Stroud Floyd, a white woman who had gone to a predominantly black neighborhood in Martinsville, Virginia, on Jan. 8, 1949, to collect money for clothes she had sold.

Northam’s office said these pardons don’t address the guilt of the seven men — they serve 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. “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.”

Some of the defendants were impaired at the time of arrest or unable to read the confessions they signed, and none had attorneys present during their interrogation, Northam’s office said in a statement.

The Martinsville Seven were convicted and sentenced to death within eight days. The group of young Black men were individually tried by juries made up entirely of white men.

Four of the men were executed in Virginia’s electric chair on Feb. 2, 1951. Three days later, the remaining three were also electrocuted. At the time, rape was a capital offense.

From 1908 to 1951, all 45 prisoners executed for rape in Virginia were Black men. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty for rape was cruel and unusual punishment. 

In March, Northam, a Democrat, signed legislation passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature abolishing the state’s death penalty. It was a dramatic shift for Virginia, a state that had the second-highest number of executions in the U.S.

To date, Gov. Northam has granted 604 pardons and acted on over 2,000 pardon petitions. 

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