The governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, has granted posthumous pardons to seven Black men who were executed in 1951 for the rape of a white woman.
The case 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 descendants of the men and their advocates. Cries and sobs could be heard from some descendants after Northam’s announcement.
The Martinsville Seven, as the men became known, were convicted of raping 32-year-old Ruby Stroud Floyd, a white woman who went to a predominantly Black neighborhood in Martinsville, Virginia, on 8 January 1949, to collect money for clothes she had sold.
On 2 February 1951, four of the men were executed in the electric chair. The remaining three were electrocuted three days later. All were tried by all-white juries.
At the time, rape was a capital offense. On Tuesday, Northam said 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 guilt or innocence but Northam said they were an acknowledgment that the men 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.”
All seven men were convicted and sentenced within eight days. Northam said some were impaired at the time of their arrest or unable to read confessions they signed. He said none had attorneys present while they were interrogated.
James Walter Grayson, the son of Francis DeSales Grayson, one of the seven, sobbed loudly when Northam told 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.
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.”
In December, advocates and descendants 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 [of Virginia], ‘simply for being Black’,” the advocates wrote 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 granted 604 pardons since taking office in 2018, more than the previous nine governors combined, his administration said.
“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.
In March, the Democrat signed legislation passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature abolishing the death penalty in Virginia. It was a dramatic shift for a state that had the second-highest number of executions in the US.
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.