RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday granted posthumous pardons to seven black men who were executed in 1951 for the rape of a white woman, in a case that has prompted calls for clemency from the the whole world and in recent years. was denounced as an example of racial disparity in the application of the death penalty.
Northam announced the pardons after meeting a dozen of the men’s descendants and their lawyers. Screams and sobs could be heard from some of the descendants after Northam’s announcement.
The “Martinsville Seven”, as the men became known, were all convicted of raping Ruby Stroud Floyd, 32, a white woman who had traveled to a predominantly black neighborhood of Martinsville, Va. January 8, 1949, to collect money for the clothes she had sold.
Four of the men were executed in Virginia’s electric chair on February 2, 1951. Three days later, the other three were also electrocuted. All were judged by entirely white juries. It was the largest group of people executed for a single victim felony in Virginia history.
At the time, rape was a capital crime. But Northam said on Tuesday that the death penalty for rape was applied almost exclusively to blacks. From 1908 – when Virginia first started using the electric chair – to 1951, state records show all 45 people executed for rape were black, he said. The pardons do not deal with the guilt or innocence of men, but Northam said the pardons are an acknowledgment that they did not receive due process and received a “racial death sentence which did not ‘is not applied in the same way to white defendants.
“These men were executed for being black, and that’s not fair,” Northam said.
“Their punishment did not match the crime. They should not have been executed, ”he added.
The seven men were found guilty and sentenced to death within eight days. Northam said some of the defendants were debilitated at the time of their arrest or unable to read the confessions they signed. He said none of the men had lawyers present during their questioning.
Ahead of their executions, protesters picketed the White House and the governor’s office received letters from around the world begging for mercy.
James Walter Grayson is the son of Francis DeSales Grayson, who was one of the Seven. He sobbed loudly when Northam told family members he would grant pardons after meeting them on Tuesday. “Thank you Jesus. Thank you, Lord,” he said, as he cried as he was kissed by two other descendants of men.
Grayson said he was 4 when his father was executed.
“It means so much to me,” he said of forgiveness.
“I remember the same day the police came to the door. He kissed us and they took him away, ”he told The Associated Press in an interview after the announcement.
Rudolph McCollum Jr., a former mayor of Richmond who is the grandnephew of Francis DeSales Grayson and the nephew of another of the executed men, Booker T. Millner, told Northam that the executions represent “a wound that continues to grow. tarnish Virginia’s history and efforts to move beyond its dubious past. ”He cried when Northam announced he would forgive the men.
In December, lawyers and the men’s descendants asked Northam to grant posthumous pardons. Their petition does not claim that the men were innocent, but claims that their trials were unfair and the punishment was extreme and unfair.
“The Martinsville Seven were not given due due process” just because they were black “, they were sentenced to death for a crime for which a white person would not have been executed for” simply because they were black. ‘they were black,’ and they were killed by the Commonwealth., ‘just because he’s black,’ “the defenders wrote in their letter to Northam.
The seven men, most in their late teens or early twenties, were: Grayson, Millner, Frank Hairston Jr.; Howard Lee Hairston; James Luther Hairston; Joe Henry Hampton; and John Clabon Taylor.
Eric W, Rise, an associate professor at the University of Delaware who wrote a book in 1995 on the case: “The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment,” Floyd told police she had been raped by a large group of black men. and testified at all six trials. Two of the men were tried together.
The seven men signed statements admitting they were present during the attack, but they did not have access to their parents or lawyers at the time, Rise said.
“The validity of the confession was one of the things their defense attorneys raised during the trials,” Rise said.
Four of the men testified in their own defense. Rise said two men said they had consensual sex with her, one man denied any involvement and another said he was so drunk he couldn’t remember what happened.
Northam has now granted a total of 604 pardons since taking office in 2018, more than the previous nine governors combined, his administration said on Tuesday.
“It’s about righting the wrongs,” Northam said. “We all deserve a fair, equal and well-functioning criminal justice system, no matter who you are or what you look like,” he said.
In March, Northam, a Democrat, signed a law passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature abolishing the state death penalty. It was a sea change for Virginia, a state that recorded the second highest number of executions in the United States. The Martinsville Seven case was cited during the legislative debate as an example of the disproportionate use of the death penalty against people of color.