Published on: Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday issued rare posthumous pardons to a group of Black men known as the Martinsville Seven, who were executed in 1951 after being convicted by all-White juries of raping a White woman (article available here).

Several of the men were illiterate and could not read their own confessions, and none had a lawyer present when they signed. The court held back-to-back one-day trials over the course of a week, taking about 2 hours to deliberate.

Four of the men were executed by electric chair on February 2nd, 1951, and three of the men were executed on February 5th, 1951. It was the largest mass execution in Virginia history. Most of the men were in their late teens or early 20s.

“In Virginia, the law provided for the death penalty for rape. However, in practice, only Black men were subjected to the death penalty for rape even though the statute had changed in 1866,” The Martinsville 7 Initiative Inc. explained. “At the time of these executions, the superintendent of the Virginia prison system wrote a letter in 1950 that underscored these disparities by stating that there were no white men on record ever executed for rape in Virginia.

“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,” the Governor’s office wrote in a statement.

Between 1908 and 1951, 45 men were executed for rape and all were Black. Years later, in 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty in cases of rape amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution.