The petition does not argue that the men were innocent but contends that the rushed trials and extreme punishment defied any concept of justice.
“The Martinsville Seven were not given adequate due process. . . . They were sentenced to death for a crime that a white person would not have been executed for . . . and they were killed, by the Commonwealth, ‘simply for being black,’ ” it states.
“The governor is deeply appreciative of this thoughtful letter,” a spokeswoman said Friday. “He understands the real pain surrounding this issue, and will thoroughly review their request.” The petition was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The case was infamous in its time, inspiring protests at the White House and condemnation from famous Russian composers. But Liz Ryan, who runs an organization dedicated to ending youth incarceration, was “shocked” when she learned of it just a few years ago while planning a trip through Martinsville, in southern Virginia.
Ryan connected with Pamela Hairston Chisholm, who has described herself as a relative of three of the seven men and has been pushing for years for an apology from public officials.
In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty for rape was cruel and unusual punishment. But in Virginia in 1949, even aiding or abetting a rape could be punishable by death.
That January, a 32-year-old woman was on her way home from collecting a debt for some used clothing. She passed a group of Black men drinking by railroad tracks. She testified at trial that one of the men chased her, tackled her and threatened to kill her if she screamed. For two hours, she said, he and others raped her repeatedly, dragging her into the woods after she briefly escaped. Several more men heard about the ongoing assault and joined in; at that point, the woman testified, she was too exhausted to fight.
From witnesses, police quickly tracked down seven men, all of whom authorities said confessed in writing.
All seven men admitted in those confessions to either having sex or attempting to have sex with the woman; three made such statements at trial. But they all pleaded not guilty to rape by force, and the acts they were accused of and admitted to varied.
“I know I was wrong to have gone with the woman,” one said at trial, according to court records. “Maybe if I hadn’t been drinking I wouldn’t have did what I did do.”
The trial judge warned at the outset that the case “must be tried as though both parties were members of the same race. I will not have it otherwise.”
But legal historian Eric Rise, who wrote a book about the Martinsville Seven, said the proceedings were still marked by unequal treatment.
Although there were Black people in the jury pool, each of the juries was made up entirely of White men.
Some of the accused were still intoxicated when they were arrested; others were illiterate and could not read the confessions they signed. None had attorneys present.
Seven men were convicted and sentenced to death in just eight days, with little effort to separate out individual culpability, after months of negative local press.
“What you have here is the form of due process but still the substance of a discriminatory system,” Rise said.
In appealing the case in the years following the convictions, civil rights advocates focused on unequal application of the law. In the 43 years that Virginia had recorded executions, they noted, 45 Black men had been sentenced to death for rape; not a single White man had. Until the end of the Civil War, state law made explicit that only a Black person could be put to death for rape; a White man would face at most 20 years in prison.
But the Virginia Supreme Court dismissed that history, concluding that “this variation does not depend upon the race of the accused, but upon the circumstances, aggravation and enormity of the crime proven in each case.”
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene, and the men were sent to the electric chair in February 1951.
Then-Gov. John S. Battle (D) later said that he thought at least two of the seven deserved clemency but did not want to give in to protesters.
James Grayson was 2 years old when his father, Francis DeSales Grayson, was executed. At 37, DeSales Grayson was nearly two decades older than the other defendants and a married war veteran with five children.
“Why did they rush to kill seven men so fast?” said Grayson, who lives in Baltimore. “This thing has been hidden underneath the rug for many, many years; if you ask the average individual about the Martinsville Seven, they look at you like you’re crazy.”
Rudolph C. McCollum, the former mayor of Richmond, is the nephew of Booker T. Millner, another of the seven men executed.
His family “didn’t want to talk about it; it was really distressing to them.” But he remembers hearing about the “horrible” condition of his uncle’s body when it was returned to the home after the execution.
What he did hear inspired him to become a lawyer. And when he got to law school and was able to read the trial transcripts, he said, “that was my first opportunity to understand how much of a travesty of justice this was.”
But he said that when he was a member of the Virginia Parole Board, he was convinced the governor could not issue a posthumous pardon; it is not mentioned in Virginia law.
Now he believes the governor should look into the issue and either grant the pardon or move for legislation that would make it possible.
“It’s not an issue of guilty or innocence; it’s an issue of right and wrong, and what’s wrong was the way they were treated by the justice system,” McCollum said. Along with Grayson and Chisholm, he signed the request to Northam.
A.E. Dick Howard, a law professor at the University of Virginia who oversaw the drafting of the state’s current constitution, said the governor has the power to grant a posthumous pardon.
“That decision does not require legislative or judicial affirmation, nor can the General Assembly or a court disturb that executive decision,” Howard said via email.
A pardon removes punishment but does not take away a finding of guilt, Howard added. But a posthumous pardon can have “enormous symbolism.”