|RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam today granted posthumous pardons for the Martinsville Seven, a group of young Black men executed by the Commonwealth for alleged rape of a white woman in 1951. 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.
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,” said Governor Northam. “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.”
Frank Hairston Jr. (18), Booker T. Millner (19), Francis DeSales Grayson (37), Howard Lee Hairston (18), James Luther Hairston (20), Joe Henry Hampton (19), and John Claybon Taylor (21) of Martinsville were executed in 1951 on charges of raping a white woman. Prior to abolishing the death penalty earlier this year, Virginia had executed more people than any other state—and studies have shown that a defendant is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death if the victim of a crime is white than if the victim is Black. From 1908 to 1951, all 45 prisoners executed for rape in Virginia were Black men. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty for rape was cruel and unusual punishment.
Governor Northam’s pardons recognize the unjust, racially-biased sentences these men received, as well as the disturbing lack of due process in their trials and convictions. All members of the Martinsville Seven were convicted and sentenced to death within eight days, and each defendant was tried by juries made up entirely of white men. Some of the defendants were impaired at the time of arrest or unable to read the confessions they signed, and none had attorneys present during their interrogation. Governor Northam made the announcement in a Richmond meeting with descendants of the Martinsville Seven.
“Pardons should not have to be a part of the process to ensure a fair and equitable justice system, but unfortunately that’s been case for far too long and I’m happy we have a Governor that believes in using his clemency powers to right the wrongs and provide second chances,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson. “Governor Northam is committed to criminal justice reform, and has made it a priority to thoroughly review and act on pardon petitions. We’re seeing the results today.”
To date, Governor Northam has granted a record-breaking 604 pardons and acted on over 2,000 pardon petitions. The large number of pending petitions is a result of an influx received by the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth under the Northam administration, coupled with the thousands of petitions that were already pending review when former Governor Terry McAuliffe took office in 2014.
In May, Governor Northam announced new steps to streamline the pardon process, including increased staff, a redesigned pardons website, and a new petition portal that allows electronic tracking submission and tracking of pardon requests.
The pardon grant for the Martinsville Seven is here.