Gov. Northam grants posthumous pardons for ‘Martinsville Seven’ who were executed 70 years ago

Southside Virginia News

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (WFXR) — On Tuesday morning, Gov. Ralph Northam granted posthumous pardons for the Martinsville Seven, a group of young Black men who were executed in 1951 after being accused of raping a white woman.

“While these pardons do not address the guilt of the seven, 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,” the governor’s office said in a statement on Tuesday, Aug. 31.

According to the governor’s office, 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 executed in 1951 for charges of raping a white woman.

Studies have shown that a defendant is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death if the victim of a crime is white than if the victim is Black. In fact, officials say all 45 prisoners executed for rape in Virginia between 1908 and 1951 were Black men.

Virginia Tech Professor of History, Peter Wallenstein, has written about the case.

“The broad context of this whole process was there was no way to assure that a fair trial could be had. There were no attorneys present for the interrogation that took hours, that included all kinds of intimidation it seems,” said Wallenstein. “The jury pool nominally included some Black men, but the prosecution made it abundantly clear that none of them would make it in the jury itself.”

The juries for all six trials were made up of all white men. Each convicted the defendants of rape and sentenced them all to death in less than two hours.

Through his action on Tuesday, officials say Northam has granted a record-breaking 604 pardons since his term began — which is more pardons than the previous nine governors combined.

“This is about righting wrongs,” said Northam. “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.”

“Governor Northam’s pardons recognize the unjust, racially-biased sentences these men received, as well as the disturbing lack of due process in their trials and convictions. All members of the Martinsville Seven were convicted and sentenced to death within eight days, and each defendant was tried by juries made up entirely of white men,” the governor’s office said in Tuesday’s statement. “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. Governor Northam made the announcement in a Richmond meeting with descendants of the Martinsville Seven.”

In addition to his 604 pardons, officials say Northam has acted on more 2,000 pardon petitions to date. The large number of pending petitions is a result of an influx received by the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth under the Northam administration, coupled with the thousands of petitions that were already pending review when former Gov. Terry McAuliffe took office in 2014.

“Pardons should not have to be a part of the process to ensure a fair and equitable justice system, but unfortunately that’s been case for far too long and I’m happy we have a Governor that believes in using his clemency powers to right the wrongs and provide second chances,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson. “Governor Northam is committed to criminal justice reform, and has made it a priority to thoroughly review and act on pardon petitions. We’re seeing the results today.”

In May, Northam announced new steps to streamline the pardon process, including increasing staff, redesigning the pardons website, and introducing a new petition portal that allows electronic tracking submission and tracking of pardon requests.

The Virginia State Conference NAACP President Robert N. Barnette Jr. issued the following statement on Tuesday in response to the Martinsville Seven’s posthumous pardons:

“The Virginia NAACP applauds today’s announcement of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam granting posthumous pardons for the Martinsville Seven, a group of young Black men executed by the Commonwealth for the alleged rape of a white woman in 1951.

Decades after the Commonwealth tried and executed these young men without due process, today’s long-overdue announcement is a step in the right direction towards justice.”

You can read the full pardon grant for the Martinsville Seven by clicking here.

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