70 years after being executed for rape, 7 Black men are pardoned in US state of Virginia

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has granted 604 pardons since taking office in 2018. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Seven Black men who were executed 70 years ago for the rape of a white woman were posthumously pardoned on Tuesday (Aug 31) by Virginia's governor, who said that the group, known as the Martinsville Seven, was denied due process because of race.

In a meeting with descendants of several of the men in Richmond, Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam said that the men were found guilty by all-white juries of raping a woman in 1949 in Martinsville, in southern Virginia, and were sentenced to death within eight days.

The sentencings touched off protests well beyond Virginia, with demonstrators in Washington and Harlem urging President Harry Truman to halt the executions. The president would not get involved, and the governor of Virginia at the time denied a last-minute plea for a stay. The men were executed in 1951.

The pardon's supporters said that in contrast, there was no record of a white defendant being executed for rape alone in Virginia's modern history.

Northam, a Democrat who has emphasised that he has granted more pardons than the previous nine governors of Virginia combined, said that the men did not deserve the death penalty.

Stopping short of saying that the men were innocent, Northam noted that all 45 people executed in the electric chair for rape in Virginia from 1908 to 1951 were Black. The pardons came five months after Northam signed a bill that abolished the death penalty in Virginia, making it the first Southern state to end capital punishment.

"These men were executed because they were Black, and that's not right," Northam said. "Today, we're here to acknowledge the wrong that was done to these seven men." The men were Francis DeSales Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr, Howard Lee Hairston, James Luther Hairston, Joe Henry Hampton, Booker T. Millner and John Clabon Taylor. Most of them were in their late teens or early 20s.

For decades, their descendants had called for a resolution to what they termed a miscarriage of justice. They said that the men had been forced into confessing that they had raped Ruby Stroud Floyd, a 32-year-old white woman who had been visiting a predominantly Black section of Martinsville, which is about 80km south of Roanoke, Virginia.

The pardon's supporters sent a petition to Northam last December seeking clemency for the seven men. In July, the Martinsville City Council issued a resolution asking Northam to commute the death sentences.

"The criminal justice system of the Commonwealth of Virginia, it failed them," Northam said. "They did not receive due process. Their punishment did not fit the crime."

A few descendants of the men wept on Tuesday after Northam announced the pardons, including James Grayson, the son of Francis DeSales Grayson.

"Thank you, Jesus," Grayson said.

Moments earlier, he said that the state's acknowledgement of the injustice was overdue.

"I'm looking for closure," he said. "I'm looking for forgiveness. I know that a mistake has been made, and it's time now that that mistake must be rectified."

Rudolph McCollum Jr, a former Richmond mayor who previously served on the state's parole board, said Virginia was making progress. His great-uncle was Francis DeSales Grayson, and his uncle was Booker T. Millner.

"You have pushed to move Virginia into the 21st century, a century where there's greater opportunities for equity and opportunity for all Virginians, and we thank you for that," he told Northam.

Northam, who announced steps in May to streamline the pardon process, has granted 604 pardons since taking office in 2018.

"For too long in Virginia," Northam said, "racism and discrimination were woven into the fabric of our systems, especially our criminal justice system."

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