Gov. Ralph Northam asked to posthumously pardon Martinsville 7

Seven Black men were executed for raping a white woman in 1949, but some say investigation was a sham

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – As Black History Month begins, a Southside group is calling on Gov. Ralph Northam to pardon seven men from a case more than 70 years ago.

The Martinsville Seven are seven Black men, executed after they were convicted of raping a white woman in 1949. Now decades later, they continue to question the integrity of the investigation.

The newspaper headline from “The Afro-American” read “Doomed Seven Calm to End” and some in Southside said it’s a headline we still see repeating 72 years later.

Cordelia Holland is the director of the Martinsville Seven Initiative and said the case may be forgotten by many, but what happened is still happening now.

“Back in the day if things had been handled differently, chances are some of the systemic racism issues that we face now may have been handled a little differently,” Holland said.

The group is advocating for a closer look at the case. The men were convicted of raping a white woman in 1949 and executed just two years later. Some of their trials lasted only a day. The initiative says the color of their skin, not the evidence in the case, decided their fates.

“If everyone would have been white, the most jail time anyone would have gotten would have been 20 years and that would have been the maximum, that would have been it. In this situation, seven young men died,” Holland said.

On Monday night the group hosted a virtual vigil, and all this week people are asked to recognize moments of silence at the times the men were killed.

Family members of the men spoke on the effects of the case alongside other community advocates. The Criminal Law Society, a student group at The College of William and Mary, has helped on the case, including writing the initial pardon request.

They believe the men are innocent, but regardless of that said their research raises numerous red flags on the case. Like the fact that the men recanted their confessions and testified that police altered what they said. The initiative said the men were extorted.

“We do know is there is a large amount of evidence that shows that the seven were not given necessary and due process required by the process of law for a jury to determine with any sense of certainty if they were guilty of the crime they were eventually executed for,” said Nick Matuszewski, William and Mary Criminal Law Society president.

The group wants a posthumous pardon from Gov. Ralph Northam. At the very least, they want to draw attention to what they said is one of the state’s greatest racial scares of modern time.

“Something, some kind of acknowledgment from the state of Virginia, I don’t know if I can say some kind of apology but we need something from the State of Virginia acknowledging that this thing should have never happened,” Holland said. “There could have been retrials later or maybe DNA you know how DNA helps in situations these days, that could have been possibilities had they been exulted or if not exulted at least imprisoned but they were killed, period.”