Commentary

A Virginia the Martinsville Seven could not have imagined

September 7, 2021 12:01 am

A newspaper clipping shows the “Martinsville Seven,” a group of seven Black men executed in 1951 after they were convicted of raping a White woman.

It took Virginia 70 years to clear the names of seven young Black men who were put to death for a Jim Crow-era rape conviction in which their skin color put a fair trial and a measured sentence out of their reach.

It was done by a governor born eight years after Francis DeSales Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr., Howard Lee Hairston, James Luther Hairston, Joe Henry Hampton, Booker T. Millner and John Clabon Taylor died in Virginia’s electric chair.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed the pardons on the last day of August in a cavernous room in the building housing his office while some of the men’s descendants sat nearby watching, some of them softly weeping.

It was a measure of justice and mercy nowhere to be found in 1951 – not from the all-White jurors in Martinsville who found them guilty of raping a White woman, not from a White judge who sentenced the men to death, not from Virginia’s White appeals courts or its governor at the time, and not from President Harry Truman despite demonstrations outside the White House that implored him to halt the executions.

Virginia’s criminal justice system in the late 1940s and early 1950s failed the Martinsville Seven, Northam said in signing the orders clearing the men of the stain their memories had borne for seven decades. He stopped short of saying unequivocally that the men were innocent, something we are now unlikely to ever fully prove or disprove.

“They did not receive due process,” the Democratic governor said. “Their punishment did not fit the crime.”

That much we can confidently say, and thank you, governor, for saying it. That took empathy and moral clarity.

In that time – before Rosa Parks, Emmett Till and Medgar Evers; before the Birmingham church bombing, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his compelling March on Washington; before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act – Black Americans had no reason to believe the closing clause of the Pledge of Allegiance: “ … with liberty and justice for all.”

Through the first seven decades of the 20th century, Black men were put to death in Virginia at a rate nearly six times that of Whites, according to research by the Death Penalty Information Center. From 1900 through 1969, 46 Whites were executed, all for murder convictions. During that same period, 258 African Americans were put to death, 73 of them for the crimes of rape, attempted rape or armed robbery – offenses for which no White convict paid with his life.

We’d like to believe that as a nation and a commonwealth, we recognized and quickly addressed the inequities of our criminal justice system and with capital punishment. The Supreme Court in 1972 struck down the death penalty and the wild variations in how states administered it as unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. Four years later, after 37 states reformed their death penalty laws to assure more uniformity and due process, the court reinstated it.

In the 45 years since, the United States has executed 1,534 people, according to DPIC tracking data. Thirty-four percent were Black, though African Americans comprise only 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, census data show. Whites account for about 56 percent of those put to death, though they constitute 76 percent of the population.

Southern states carried out 1,242, or 81 percent, of all U.S. executions since 1976, according to DPIC data. Virginia’s 113 is the second-most nationally. Of course, everything’s bigger in Texas, which has put five times more inmates to death than Virginia and singlehandedly accounts for 37 percent of all American executions during that time.

Virginia broke with her Southern sisters in February, becoming the first former Confederate state to abolish the death penalty. Among their reasons, Northam and General Assembly Democrats who advanced the landmark legislation cited the death penalty’s disproportionate application to Black people.

Forty-six percent of those whom Virginia executed since 1976 were Black, a rate almost triple the state’s 18 percent Black population. Among the 21 states that have carried out 10 or more executions over that time, only Louisiana has executed a fractionally greater ratio of African Americans: 46.4 percent.

Virginia and executions go way back. The first in what’s now the United States was carried out by British colonists in Jamestown in 1608 after finding Capt. George Kendall guilty of spying for Spain, according to the DPIC. For 300 years, Virginia hanged its condemned, switching to electrocution in 1908 and to lethal injections in 1995. The last inmate Virginia executed was William Morva in 2017.

Virginia’s system of capital punishment, even after 1976, was far from sound. Those accused of capital crimes faced perhaps the nation’s most unforgiving gauntlet of procedural obstacles that strictly limited post-conviction judicial review of legal claims to just 21 days after the trial. It was daunting for the most skilled attorneys. Indigent, often Black defendants relying on some of the nation’s most poorly compensated and inexperienced court-appointed counsel found themselves at a horrifying disadvantage. Add in police and prosecutorial misconduct that produced false confessions, bogus and unvetted claims from coached jailhouse snitches, false and faulty witness identifications, the concealment of exculpatory evidence and so-called expert witnesses who fed jurors what’s now known to be junk science and the system amounted to an express train to death row.

“If you look at the data, those most likely to get the death penalty are black defendants with a White victim,” said Juliet Hatchett, associate director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Of the 52 Black men Virginia has executed for murder since 1976, 44 of the 64 homicide victims were White, 18 were Black and two were other races, the DPIC data show.

Virginia’s dependency on the death penalty began to ebb in the late 1990s, ironically thanks in part to the state’s abolition of parole. With the assurance that a sentence of life in prison meant exactly that, juries increasingly chose it over the soul-wrenching decision to kill someone. In the early 2000s, the state created regional public defender offices to represent defendants charged with a capital crime. By the time Northam signed the death penalty abolition into law, only two inmates remained on Virginia’s death row. Their sentences were commuted to life terms.

Virginians became more aware of how imperfect their criminal justice system could be. Over the past 32 years, 62 Virginia felons have been exonerated by evidence not known or not presented at their trials according to a database maintained by The National Registry of Exonerations. Thirteen of them were serving life terms, but none opened more eyes than Earl Washington.

A Black man with an IQ of 69, Washington came within days of being executed for a sham conviction rooted in a coerced confession to the 1984 rape and murder of a 19-year-old Culpeper mother of three. DNA analysis in 1993 proved he was not the woman’s attacker, but no court could consider it because it was not presented within the three weeks after his trial. It took executive actions to spare and ultimately free him: Gov. Doug Wilder commuted his death sentence to life in prison in 1994 and Gov. Jim Gilmore granted him a pardon in 2000. Washington was awarded $2.25 million from the state for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment. The commonwealth also enacted a law allowing inmates pursuing an innocence claim to request exculpatory DNA testing at any time.

The death penalty gradually lost potency as a partisan wedge issue. That became clear in the 2005 gubernatorial race when Republican Jerry Kilgore’s effort to blast Kaine for his faith-based aversion to the death penalty backfired badly. Kaine, a Roman Catholic, struck a prevalent chord within a changing commonwealth by acknowledging his personal opposition to capital punishment while assuring voters he would dutifully enforce Virginia’s laws. Eleven inmates were executed during his term.

This year, Virginia at long last surrendered its power to take a human life under legal auspices. The demise of capital punishment was not met with widespread rage but rather solemnity and relief.

Maybe that, even more than Northam’s pardon, is the most abiding elegy to the Martinsville Seven.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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