RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam granted posthumous pardons Tuesday to seven Black men who were executed in 1951 for the rape of a white woman, in a case that attracted pleas for mercy from around the world and in recent years has been denounced as an example of racial disparity in the use of the death penalty.
Northam announced the pardons after meeting with about a dozen descendants of the men and their advocates. Cries 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 32-year-old Ruby Stroud Floyd, a white woman who had gone to a predominantly black neighborhood in Martinsville, Virginia, on Jan. 8, 1949, to collect money for clothes she had sold.
Four of the men were executed in Virginia's electric chair on Feb. 2, 1951. Three days later, the remaining three were also electrocuted. All of them were tried by all-white juries. It was the largest group of people executed for a single-victim crime in Virginia's history.
At the time, rape was a capital offense. But Northam said Tuesday that the death penalty for rape was applied almost exclusively to Black people. From 1908 - when Virginia began using the electric chair - to 1951, state records show that all 45 people executed for rape were Black, he said. The pardons do not address the guilt or innocence of the men, but Northam said the pardons are an acknowledgment that they did not receive due process and received a “racially-biased death sentence not similarly applied to white defendants.”
“These men were executed because they were Black, and that’s not right,” Northam said.
“Their punishment did not fit the crime. They should not have been executed,” he added.
All seven men were convicted and sentenced to death within eight days. Northam said some of the defendants were impaired at the time of their arrests or unable to read confessions they signed. He said none of the men had attorneys present while they were interrogated.
Before their executions, protesters picketed at the White House, and the governor's office received letters from around the world asking for mercy.
James Walter Grayson is the son of Francis DeSales Grayson, who was one of the seven. He sobbed loudly when Northam told the family members he would grant the pardons after meeting with them Tuesday. “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord,” he said, as he wept while being embraced by two other descendants of the men.
Grayson said he was 4 years old when his father was executed.
“It means so much to me,” he said of the pardon.
“I remember the very 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.
In December, advocates and descendants of the men asked Northam to issue posthumous pardons. Their petition does not argue that the men were innocent but says their trials were unfair and the punishment was extreme and unjust.
“The Martinsville Seven were not given adequate due process ‘simply for being black,’ they were sentenced to death for a crime that a white person would not have been executed for ‘simply for being black,’ and they were killed, by the Commonwealth, ‘simply for being black,' " the advocates wrote in their letter to Northam.
The seven men, most in their late teens or early 20s, were: Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr.; Howard Lee Hairston; James Luther Hairston; Joe Henry Hampton; Booker Millner; and John Clabon Taylor.
Northam has now granted a total of 604 pardons since taking office in 2018, more than the previous nine governors combined, his administration announced Tuesday.
“This is about righting wrongs,” Northam said. “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," he said.
Family members said the miscarriage of justice in the Martinsville Seven case shows clearly the impact of Jim Crow laws and unequal justice that still permeates the criminal justice system today. Northam’s pardons do not address the guilt of the seven, but advocates said they believe the initial convictions are dubious since there were reports at the time that some signed confession statements they could not read.
Family members hope the case will garner national attention.
“I want you all to put this on the front page of a national newspaper. I want to see this on Oprah. I want to see this on MSNBC, CNN. I want the world to know about the Martinsville Seven,” said Pam Hairston, a relative of multiple of the seven.
The moment of jubilance the seven families experienced Tuesday afternoon was poignant, but they were quick to point out the thousands of other Black families who will never feel the same relief and closure.
“They died, as you heard, saying it was wrong,” said Rudy McCollum, the former Mayor of Richmond who is related to two of the seven men. “If we band together and work together and fight together, we can acquire the end that we seek because the Martinsville Seven is just one story.”
Efforts are underway to memorialize the case in Martinsville, either through a museum or other public memorials.
In March, Northam, a Democrat, signed legislation passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature abolishing the state's death penalty. It was a dramatic shift for Virginia, a state that had the second-highest number of executions in the U.S. The case of the Martinsville Seven was cited during the legislative debate as an example of the disproportionate use of the death penalty against people of color.