Exactly 70 years after their execution, seven African-American men were granted posthumous pardons.

Those who had been nicknamed "the Seven of Martinsville" were sentenced to death in 1951 for the rape of a white woman in the United States.

After meeting their descendants, the Democratic governor of Virginia decided to pardon them, not "on the issue of their guilt" but because he acknowledged that the accused had "not been entitled to impartial justice".

Their color "played an undeniable role in their identification, in the investigation and in their condemnation" to the death penalty, in particular because they were tried by entirely white juries, indicates the decree of the prosecutor.

“Even if we cannot change the past, I hope this measure brings some peace,” commented the governor, a supporter of penal system reforms who, since taking office in 2018, has granted a record number of 604 graces.

Versions to the contrary and obtained without the presence of a lawyer

The Martinsville, southern Virginia case dates back to January 1949. A 32-year-old white woman reported being raped by a group of black men, and police quickly made seven arrests and obtained a signed confession.

But the seven men, interviewed without a lawyer, had given different versions of the scene and several were illiterate and unable to read their confessions.

Despite protests in their favor even outside the White House, they had passed into the electric chair in February 1951, bringing the number of rape convicts executed in Virginia since 1908 to 45 - all African Americans.

Years later, in 1977, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional to impose the death penalty in rape cases.

Virginia abolished the death penalty in March, a symbolic decision for the state which has the record of executions in American history, and which became the first in the former segregationist South to end the application of the capital punishment.


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