The Martinsville Seven
The Martinsville Bulletin wrote on May 4, 1949, "Several hundred people swarmed around the courthouse yard and along the Public Square this morning in an attempt to get a look at the doomed men." The seven defendants were taken back into the courtroom to hear the sentencing from Judge Kennon C. Whittle. While each jury took a separate ballot for the penalty phase during the trials and had decided on death, the sentence did not become official until passed by the judge. Anticipation was high that the court might show some mercy in the case, since no one had been killed during the assault and there was no homicidal intent on the part of the suspects.
"I have never wanted 99 years as much as I want it now," John Taylor said to a reporter. While the courtroom filled to capacity with spectators, the shackled men were brought to the bench by Virginia State troopers and sheriff's deputies. The men's families sat weeping in the gallery. The first to be sentenced was Joe Henry Hampton.
"It is the judgment of this court that you be electrocuted until you are dead, in accordance with the Virginia statutes," said Judge Whittle, "the date hereby fixed by the court for the execution is Friday, July 15, 1949. It is my prayer that God have mercy on your soul." Each of the defendants received the same sentence. When Grayson was asked if he had anything to say, he replied, "I didn't do any harm. I have told the truth. I have always worked hard and have a family and five kids!" The proceeding required less than thirty minutes, after which the men said goodbye to their families and returned to the cellblock.
The defense team appealed all the verdicts. The convictions, they said, could not be allowed to stand for many reasons, but their main arguments were the court's failure to grant a change of venue and the penalty given to the defendants. "In sentencing petitioners, on account of their race and color, to death, pursuant to the policy...of the Commonwealth of Virginia," the appeal stated, "to inflict the death penalty upon Negroes...convicted of rape upon white women, while failing and refusing to inflict the death penalty upon white or any other persons convicted of the rape of Negro women."
But one by one, each error cited by the defense team was explained away. Judge Edward Hudgins, who wrote the opinion for the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, said a change of venue was not called for in this case because there was no general consensus against the suspects in the community. Hudgins agreed with the Martinsville trial judge when he said, "The public in this community should be congratulated upon the way they have conducted themselves in this matter. The press should be congratulated in the way it has handled the news of this unfortunate thing."
Though the appeal was denied on all counts, the reality of seven men being placed into the electric chair, one after another, like some assembly line of death, began to spread across the nation. But as repulsive as that scenario was to imagine, the long and bloody history of the death penalty in Virginia was even more appalling.