January 19, 2021
Governor Northam Should Pardon the Martinsville Seven
The 1951 executions of Frank Hairston, James Hairston, Howard Lee Hairston, Booker T. Millner, John C. Taylor, Joe Hampton and Francis DeSales Grayson, collectively known as the Martinsville Seven, have left a dark stain on Virginia’s history. At every turn of the investigation of the crime and judicial process, the Martinsville Seven were met with bias from law enforcement and the justice system. There is a plethora of evidence to show that the Seven were not given the necessary due process required by law for a jury to determine—with any sense of certainty—that they were guilty of the crime that led to their executions.
Here’s why Governor Northam should posthumously pardon the Martinsville Seven and apologize on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia for their wrongful executions in 1951:
Improper & Coerced Confessions
On the night of January 8, 1949, Ruby Floyd, a white woman, wandered into the home of a local family and alleged that she had been raped by at least thirteen Black men while passing through the Cherrytown neighborhood. According to Oliver Hill, an attorney for the Martinsville Seven, the police arrested “all black men in the town who had mud on their shoes.” Within five hours of the arrest Frank Hairston and Booker Milner confessed and based on their confessions, James Hairston, Howard Lee Hairston, John C. Taylor, and Francis DeSales Grayson were arrested in the early hours of the morning on January 9. Police obtained confessions from them less than four hours after they were brought into custody. Joe Hampton, the last of the Martinsville Seven, was arrested the next morning. The fact that all of this occurred in less than two days points to real impropriety during the investigation. Defense lawyers in the first round of trials claimed that the initial confessions were forced by the local sheriff. In addition, a reverend close to the accused men told reporters at the Richmond Afro-American that the Martinsville police acted improperly during their questioning of the accused men. All of the men, except for Grayson, were in their late teens and early twenties, yet were alone during questioning without the presence of an attorney. In addition to being without counsel, the accused were also under the influence of alcohol while being interrogated which should have caused police to delay the interviews.
Convicted By the Local Press
Despite the fact that the police moved the Martinsville Seven to jails outside of Martinsville due to the notoriety and publicity surrounding the alleged crime and following proceedings, the Court denied a motion to change venue. Samuel Tucker, a lawyer on appeal for the Martinsville Seven, argued that the lower court had erred in refusing to grant a change of venue because the local press had published articles that fostered a practically universal feeling that the accused were guilty and a feeling that they should be put to death. Once the Martinsville Seven were accused, the Martinsville Bulletin treated them as guilty and the case as closed. (See generally Seven Men Charged With Assault on Woman Here, Martinsville Bulletin on Jan. 1, 1949). Tucker believed “beyond a doubt that these newspaper articles had been widely read and thoroughly discussed and that there were few, if any, within the entire city who entertained doubt as to the guilt of the accused.”
All White Juries
While the trial remained in Martinsville, a fairly diverse town at the time, all seven men were tried by all-white juries. There had been Black individuals in the jury pool, but none of them were selected to serve on the jury. All-White juries generally convict Black defendants 16 percent more often than White defendants, but when at least one Black person was on the jury, conviction rates for Black and White defendants were nearly identical (See All-White Juries, Montana Innocence Project, https://mtinnocenceproject.org/all-white-juries/).
Presumption of Guilt & Rushed Trials
The rapid pace of the trials created a cumulative presumption of guilt that differed little from convictions obtained by hurrying defendants to trial under pressure from a mob. The trials denied due process to the petitioners with these practices that ensured that all defendants “were railroaded to the electric chair in assembly line procedure.” (Eric Rise, Race, Rape and Radicalism: The Case of the Martinsville Seven, 58 J. S. Hist. 461, 477 (1992). The trials took place on practically successive days, with six proceedings held over the course of eight days. On April 21, 1949, Joe Henry Hampton was tried, and the rest of the trials quickly followed and concluded within the next eight days. (Hampton v. Commonwealth, 190 Va. 531, 537 (1950). Holding the trials so close together made it so that “mounting public approval of previous verdicts made it increasingly difficult for any to dissent.” (Rise, Race, Rape and Radicalism, 477 quoting Brief for Appellant, Hampton v. Commonwealth, No. 3635, p.6. Virginia State Law Library, Richmond)).
Racial Disparities in Sentencing
The Martinsville Seven were found guilty as charged and sentenced to death. Before the Civil War, only Black men were subjected to the death penalty for rape. Even though the law changed in 1866, the practice of only subjecting Black defendants to the death penalty for rape continued. It was almost exclusively applied when the defendant was Black and the victim was white. The superintendent of the prisons stated that there were no white men on record ever executed for rape in Virginia.
Cold War Context
Hundreds of people sent telegrams to the governor and the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) staged more than a dozen protests. These efforts were not successful. In fact, in response to one one of the CRC’s planned protests, Governor John Battle alerted the state militia and doubled the capital guard. Governor Battle refused to acknowledge the role that race played in the disparity in sentencing by stating that, “The prisoners have not been convicted because they are Negroes and should not be released because they are Negroes.” The Governor’s refusal to accommodate the CRC protesters was in large part because he did not want to be seen working with people that he perceived as being aligned with the Communist Party. In 1951, Senator Joseph McCarthy engaged the entire country in a “red” scare, accusing thousands of people of being un-American and communist. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings in Congress. During this time, attorneys at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the organization representing the Martinsville Seven on their appeals, were concerned that the CRC’s involvement in the case would endanger the defendants and lessen their chances of success because of the CRC’s potential Communist affiliations.
Virginia Leads US in Largest Mass Execution
Four of the Martinsville Seven were executed on February 2, 1951, with the remaining three electrocuted on February 5. It was the largest group of executions for crimes against a single victim in state history and one of the largest in U.S. history. “At a time when African-Americans were beginning to assert their civil rights vigorously, the executions provided a stark reminder of the harsh treatment reserved for blacks who violated Southern racial codes.”
Questions of Innocence
Both contemporaneously and in the decades since their executions, legal scholars and others have argued that the Martinsville Seven were innocent of the crime they were executed for. During their trials, all of the defendants at least partially recanted their confessions and some even testified that the confessions had been altered by the police. There is a plethora of evidence to show that the Seven were not given the necessary due process required by law for a jury to determine—with any sense of certainty—that they were guilty of the crime that led to their executions.
Prepared by the Martinsville Seven Project