Seven black men executed 70 years ago for raping a white woman were posthumously pardoned Tuesday by the governor of Virginia, who said the group, known as the Martinsville Seven, had been denied a fair trial because of race.
In a meeting with descendants of several men in Richmond, Virginia, Governor Ralph S. Northam said the men had been found guilty by all-white juries of raping a woman in 1949 in Martinsville, southern Virginia, and were sentenced to death within eight days.
The convictions sparked protests far beyond Virginia, with protesters in Washington and Harlem urging President Harry S. Truman to stop the executions. The president declined to participate and the then governor of Virginia denied a last-minute plea for a stay. The men were executed in 1951.
By contrast, the pardons said there was no record in the modern history of Virginia of a white defendant being executed solely for rape.
Mr Northam, a Democrat who has emphasized that he has pardoned more than the previous nine Virginia governors combined, said the men did not deserve the death penalty.
Mr Northam did not say the men were innocent, noting that all 45 people executed in the electric chair from 1908 to 1951 for rape in Virginia were black. The pardon came five months after Mr. Northam signed a bill abolishing the death penalty in Virginia, making it the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty.
“These men were executed because they were black, and that is not right,” said Mr Northam. “Today we are here to acknowledge the injustice done to these seven men.”
The men were Francis DeSales Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr., Howard Lee Hairston, James Luther Hairston, Joe Henry Hampton, Booker T. Millner and John Clabon Taylor. Most of them were in their late teens or early 20s.
For decades their descendants had called for a solution to what they called a miscarriage of justice. They said the men had been forced to confess to raping Ruby Stroud Floyd, a 32-year-old white woman who had visited a predominantly black area of Martinsville, about 50 miles south of Roanoke, Virginia.
The pardon supporters sent a petition to Mr Northam last December asking for a pardon for the seven men. In July Martinsville City Council issued a resolution requesting Mr Northam to commute the death sentences.
“The Commonwealth of Virginia criminal justice system has let them down,” Mr Northam said. “They have not received a fair trial. Their punishment did not fit the crime.”
A few descendants of the men wept Tuesday after Mr Northam announced the pardon, including James Grayson, the son of Francis DeSales Grayson.
“Thank you, Jesus,” Mr. Grayson said.
Moments earlier, he said that recognition of the injustice by the state was too late.
“I’m looking for closure,” he said. “I’m looking for forgiveness. I know a mistake was made and it is now time to correct that mistake.”
Rudolph McCollum Jr., a former mayor of Richmond who previously served on the state’s probation commission, said Virginia is making progress. His great-uncle was Francis DeSales Grayson, and his uncle was Booker T. Millner.
“You pushed to bring Virginia into the 21st century, a century where there will be more opportunities for equality and opportunity for all Virginians, and we thank you for that,” he told Mr Northam.
Mr Northam, who announced steps in May to streamline the pardon process, has granted 604 pardons since taking office in 2018.
“For too long in Virginia,” said Mr. Northam, “racism and discrimination were woven into the fabric of our systems, especially our criminal justice system.”