Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said the pardons of the men known as the “Martinsville Seven” does not address their guilt or innocence.
It serves, he said, as recognition they did not have a fair trial and received a “racially-biased death sentence not similarly applied to white defendants.”
“This is about righting wrongs,” Northam said in a statement. “We all deserve a criminal justice system that is fair, equal, and gets it right — no matter who you are or what you look like.”
Frank Hairston Jr., 18; Booker Millner, 19; Francis DeSales Grayson, 37; Howard Lee Hairston, 18; James Luther Hairston, 20; Joe Henry Hampton, 19; and John Claybon Taylor, 21; of Martinsville, Virginia were executed in 1951.
Northam noted that the seven were convicted by juries made up entirely of white men, and some of them were illiterate, unable to read confessions they signed.
“Race played an undeniable role during the identification, investigation, conviction, and the sentencing,” the governor said in the pardon document.
According to the governor’s office, all 45 prisoners executed for rape in Virginia between 1908 and 1951 were Black men.
Virginia abolished the death penalty earlier this year.