Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Martinsville Seven

The Black Death Penalty

During the remaining months of 1949, the feeling grew that the punishment given to the defendants was unfair. It seemed to be a sort of justice overkill to sentence someone to death for a crime in which no one had died and for which there was no lethal intent. But Virginia had a long history of such penalties: Since the early 19th century, punishment for rape, or even attempted rape, was death by hanging. Though it was not mandatory, juries still had the power to recommend the ultimate penalty in such cases. However, it wasn't the sentence itself that generated controversy; it was the manner in which the punishment was applied that led many people to question the intent of Virginia's statutes.

Research showed that whites who raped and were convicted did not receive the death penalty in Virginia. Only black defendants did. In preparation for appeal, defense attorneys compiled statistics on capital punishment in Virginia during the 20th century. What they discovered was a disturbing trend toward the application of the death penalty in the state that predated the Civil War.

From 1900 until the time of the Martinsville Seven trial, thirty-seven black defendants were executed for the crime of rape. An additional nineteen received the death penalty for attempted rape. No white man had received the death penalty for either crime during the same period. In the 19th century, as might be expected, the figures were much worse. From the year 1800 until 1900, 526 black defendants were executed by the State of Virginia for a variety of offenses, which included burglary, slave revolt, robbery, stealing, arson and other felonies. Only 46 whites were executed. For the crime of rape or attempted rape, 64 black men received the death penalty, while no whites suffered the same fate for the same crime. In fact, for as long as records have been kept in Virginia, not one white man had ever been executed for the crime of rape.

This obvious disparity in sentencing was a revelation to many people. Defense attorneys were confident that any fair court, after reviewing the evidence, would see that the Virgina justice system was biased against black Americans. Defense attorneys submitted another appeal to the City of Richmond court. They outlined the curious history of capital punishment in the state of Virginia for the past one hundred and fifty years, including the shocking statistics they had compiled from government archives. Though it may have been conclusive to some jurists, Judge Ray Doubles was not convinced. He told defense attorneys that dozens of different juries at different times had sentenced those defendants to death. Therefore, it could not be said that the courts were acting on a policy that was either endorsed or supported by the state. The juries, in effect, acted on their own, and the state could not be held responsible for what they did. The appeal was denied again.