‘This is about righting wrongs’: Va. governor grants posthumous pardon to the ‘Martinsville 7’

Published: Aug. 31, 2021 at 10:36 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 31, 2021 at 12:05 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has granted a posthumous pardon to seven Black men from Martinsville who were executed 70 years ago for the alleged rape of a white woman.

Family members of Francis DeSales Grayson, Booker T. Millner, Frank Hairston, James Hairston, Howard Lee Hairston, John C. Taylor, and Joe Hampton, known as the Martinsville 7, say the men were interrogated under duress, without the presence of a lawyer, and their confessions were coerced under threat of mob violence.

At the time, the circuit court held back-to-back one-day trials over the course of a week, taking about 2 hours to deliberate. Four of the men were executed by electric chair on February 2nd, 1951, and three of the men were executed on February 5th, 1951 in Richmond.

The alleged crime happened in January 1949. It was the largest mass execution in Virginia history. Most of the men were in their late teens or early 20s.

The NAACP sought appeals for the Martinsville 7, and the Virginia NAACP held a “Martinsville 7 Week” on September 4-10, 1949, to raise money for their defense. NAACP lawyers argued that the men were not given fair and impartial trials, citing they were tried in a hostile environment.

“In Virginia, the law provided for the death penalty for rape. However, in practice, only Black men were subjected to the death penalty for rape even though the statute had changed in 1866,” The Martinsville 7 Initiative Inc. explained. “At the time of these executions, the superintendent of the Virginia prison system wrote a letter in 1950 that underscored these disparities by stating that there were no white men on record ever executed for rape in Virginia.

For a year, The Martinville 7 Coalition, including family members and community advocates, has been pushing for a posthumous pardon. Also included in the push for the pardon, William & Mary’s Criminal Law Society, Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop and The Restorative Justice Collective.

“They did not deserve to die. Governor Northam should render an apology to the families of these seven men, stating that they should not have been executed,” says James Grayson, son of Francis DeSales Grayson, one of the Martinsville Seven. “It’s never too late to right a wrong.”

The City Council of Martinsville unanimously approved a resolution calling on the Governor to pardon the Martinsville 7.

Tuesday, the group met with Governor Northam, where the pardon was granted.

The petition does not argue the men were innocent, but it clarifies the trials were unfair and the punishment was extreme and unjust.

“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 wrote in a statement. “With today’s action, Governor Northam has granted a record-breaking 604 pardons since his term began—more pardons than the previous nine governors combined.”

“This is about righting wrongs,” Northam said in a statement. “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.”

The Virginia NAACP released the following statement:

“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.”

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