Virginia Governor Ralph Northam granted posthumous pardons on Tuesday to seven African-American 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.
Governor Northam announced pardons for Francis DeSales Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr., Howard Lee Hairston, James Luther Hairston, Joe Henry Hampton, Booker T. Millner and John Clabon Taylor 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 neighbourhood in Martinsville, Virginia, on January 8, 1949, to collect money for clothes she had sold.
Four of the men were executed in Virginia's electric chair on February 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 offence. But Governor Northam said 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 Governor Northam said the pardons are an acknowledgement 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," Governor 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. Governor 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 on Tuesday. "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord," he said, as he wept while being embraced by two other descendants of the men.
Mr Grayson said he was four 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.
Rudolph McCollum Jr., a former Richmond mayor who is the great-nephew of Francis DeSales Grayson and the nephew of another one of the executed men, Booker T. Millner, told Governor Northam the executions represent "a wound that continues to mar Virginia's history and the efforts to move beyond its dubious past." He wept when Governor Northam announced he would pardon the men.
In December, advocates and descendants of the men asked the governor 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 Governor Northam.
Eric W, Rise, an associate professor at the University of Delaware who wrote a 1995 book on the case: "The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment," said Ms Floyd told police she was raped by a large group of Black men and testified at all six trials. Two of the men were tried together.
All seven men signed statements admitting they were present during the attack, but they had no access to their parents or attorneys at the time, Professor Rise said.
"The validity of the confessions were one of the things their defence attorneys brought up at the trials," Professor Rise said.
Four of the men testified in their own defence. Professor Rise said two men said they had consensual sex with her, one man denied any involvement, and another man said he was so intoxicated he could not remember what happened.
Governor Northam has now granted a total of 604 pardons since taking office in 2018, more than the previous nine governors combined, his administration announced on Tuesday.
"This is about righting wrongs," Governor 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.
In March, Governor 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 colour.