On Aug. 31, Governor Ralph Northam granted posthumous pardons to the Martinsville seven. The Martinsville seven was a group of Black men executed 70 years ago in Virginia. According to The New York Times, the men were found guilty of raping a white woman by white juries. All seven of the men were sentenced to death and convicted eight days after their trials. They were executed within a month of the events transpiring. They have been pardoned on the basis that they did not receive proper due process.
In an article in The Wall Street Journal, the Governor said the executions were racially biased. In the history of Virginia, no white man had ever been executed for rape. The pardons came after the family of the executed men met with Governor Northam. The pardons are simple pardons. The Washington Post explained that these pardons do not have to do with the issue of guilt. Instead, they acknowledge that there was a racially motivated lack of due process.
In 1949, the woman claimed that the men subdued and raped her for two hours in the South of Virginia. After she went to the police, the police arrested the men and produced signed confessions. Several of the men were illiterate. Therefore, they could not read their confessions. They also had different accounts of the events and no lawyer present at the time of the signed confessions. All seven pleaded not guilty at their trials.
The Washington Post details how the Martinsville seven were part of 45 men executed in Virginia between 1908 and 1951 for rape. All those men executed were Black. The trial of the Martinsville seven sparked a civil rights outrage. Many felt there was evident racial inequality in the Virginia criminal justice system. Protests were made in front of the White House to urge the President to intervene. Harry S. Truman, however, did not get involved. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that execution for rape was cruel and unusual punishment.
In 2020, the family of the executed men petitioned Governor Northam to pardon the men. They were not claiming their innocence but rather claiming they were unjustly executed for the color of their skin. Francis DeSales Grayson (37), Frank Hairston Jr. (19), Howard Lee Hairston (18), James Luther Hairston (20), Joe Henry Hampton (19), Booker T. Millner (19) and John Clabon Taylor (21) were all granted the pardons.
These pardons are just some of many that Governor Northam has granted in his time in office. According to The New York Times, the governor has granted 604 pardons since he took office in 2018. The pardons have been a part of the governor’s plan to “bring Virginia into the 21st century.”
In recent years, racial inequality has been at the forefront, especially after the Black Lives Matter movement garnered much support in 2020. In this NBC News article, Governor Northam has expressed his support of the reform in police brutality and acknowledged the racial inequality in Virginia. The pardons of the men are just one part of Governor Northam’s plan to “right Virginia’s wrongs,” as described in the article.