Justice, 70 years later. The Governor of Virginia awarded a posthumous pardon to seven African American men executed in 1951 for the rape of a white woman, after an investigation and prosecutions marked by racism.
The democrat Ralph Northam announced his decision after meeting descendants of these men known as “The seven of Martinsville”. The pardons “do not address their guilt” but “acknowledge that they were not entitled to impartial justice,” according to a statement from his office.
Their skin color “played an undeniable role in their identification, in the investigation and in their conviction” to the death penalty, especially since they were tried by completely white juries, the decree said.
“These men were executed because they were black, and that’s not right, “Northam said during the hearing. “Although we cannot change what happened, I hope that this measure brings some peace,” said the governor.
Northam is a supporter of reforming the penal system and awarded a number record of 604 pardons since the beginning of his term in 2018, which exceeds the total number granted by the nine previous Virginia governors.
According The Washington Post, the familiars they erupted in applause and several covered their faces and sobbed after hearing the government decision.
“Seventy years. Seventy years!” exclaimed Pamela Hairston, one of the relatives of those sentenced, who had been writing letters for almost three decades to draw attention to the case.
The Martinsville case became a controversial issue in the civil rights movement shortly after the men were arrested in January 1949.
A 32-year-old white woman reported being raped by a group of black men in the city of Southside, and police quickly made the seven arrests and got signed confessions.
However, the seven men gave different versions of the events and many were illiterate and unable to read their own confessions. Neither had a lawyer present when they signed the statement.
They were convicted in just eight days for all-white juries and executed in the electric chair in February 1951.
The case sparked protests in the White House and highlighted a large inequality in Virginia’s criminal justice systemBetween 1908 and 1951, 45 men were executed for rape and all were black, recalls the newspaper
In 1977 the Supreme Court spoke out against imposing capital punishment in rape cases.
Virginia abolished the death penalty in March, a symbolic decision for this southern US state that holds the record for executions in the country’s history.