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Virginia Gov. Northam pardons Martinsville Seven

Virginia Gov. Northam pardons Martinsville Seven
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (C) consoles the surviving family members of the seven Black men executed in 1951 for the alleged rape of a White woman. The governor pardoned the so-called Martinsville Seven. Photo courtesy of the governor's office

Aug. 31 (UPI) -- Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday posthumously pardoned seven Black men who were executed in 1951 for the alleged rape of a White woman.

He said he granted the pardons because the men were tried by an all-White jury, without due process and executed because they were Black, "and that's not right."

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"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. 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."

Northam announced the pardons during a ceremony in the Patrick Henry Building with surviving family members of the seven men and activists.

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The state executed 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 Clayton Taylor, 21, by electric chair. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that the the death penalty can't be used as a punishment for rape.

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Northam said the pardons don't address the men's guilt, but rather the lack of due process and the state's history of disproportionately executing Black people.

Virginia became the 23rd state in the nation to ban the death penalty earlier this year after Northam voiced his support for abolition. He signed the new law March 24.

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Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Northam's pardon was an important and symbolic step toward reconciling that racial disparity in the state's use of the death penalty.

"The sham trials of the Martinsville Seven in front of all-White, all-male juries epitomized the use of the death penalty as a White supremacist instrument of racial oppression and embodied the link between lynching, segregation, and the death penalty," Dunham told UPI. "Everybody knew that the message of the executions wasn't that the guilty would be punished; it was that 'we' (meaning the White establishment) can get any of you (the entire Black community) on any pretext at any time. It was a manifestation of racial terror lynching through the legal system.

"Virginia's abolition of the death penalty was an historic event in ending the legacy of these racial injustices going forward. But the case of the Martinsville Seven is important in another way -- the pardon is a formal apology and an acknowledgment that the lives of the people who were victims of the ultimate racial oppression, their family members' lives, and the lives of everyone in the Black community have value. Their lives matter. And the act of acknowledging this matters, too."

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