Nearly 70 years since seven Black men were executed for the rape of a white woman in Virginia, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam has granted them each a posthumous pardon.
An announcement came on Tuesday after Northam met with the families of each of the deceased men, NBC Washington reports.
Francis DeSales Grayson, 37, Frank Hairston Jr., 18, Howard Lee Hairston, 18, James Luther Hairston, 20, Joe Henry Hampton, 19, Booker T. Millner, 19, and John Claybon Taylor, 21, were all executed via the electric chair in 1951.
The men, known as the “Martinsville Seven,” were ages 18 to 37 and were all found guilty of raping, which was a capital offense at the time, 32-year-old Ruby Stroud Floyd in a predominately Black neighborhood on Jan. 8, 1949. According to NBC Washington, Floyd was collecting money for clothes she had previously sold.
The men were found guilty by an all-white jury, The Washington Post reports. Four of the men were executed on Feb. 2, 1951, and the remaining men were killed three days later.
“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.”
After the announcement, Grayson’s son, Walter Grayson, cried out in relief.
“Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord,” he said.
Pamela Hairston exclaimed, “70 years, 70 years!”
During the investigation of the case, police received signed confessions, however the Martinsville Seven were noted as being illiterate and could not read their statements. Additionally, none of them had a lawyer present with them when they signed the confessions.
Family of the men, community members and advocates sought for the pardon of the Martinsville Seven, arguing that they were not given a fair trial. The family said in a petition that their execution was extreme, however they did not proclaim their innocence.
“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.
In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that issuing the death penalty in rape cases was considered a “cruel and unusual punishment” in accordance with the U.S. Constitution.
Northam issued simple pardons for the men, which do not recognize them for their innocence but specify the racial inequity of the case and a lack of due process.
Back in March, Northam abolished the state’s death penalty. Prior to the signing of the legislation, Virginia had the second-highest number of executions in the country.
The governor has issued more than 600 pardons since taking office in 2018, according to The Washington Post.
He said during an interview that the state has “402 years of history and a lot of wrongs that we need to right.”