The Martinsville Seven
The Trials Begin
From the very beginning, the racial aspects of the case had many people worried. It was no secret that historically, blacks who raped white women in the South usually paid for the crime with their lives, whether the executions were carried out by the courts or bloodthirsty mobs. But Martinsville officials were determined that justice run its course. On the first day of the first trial, Judge Kennon Whittle told the prosecution and the defense, "I here and now admonish you that this case will be tried in such a way as not to disturb the kindly feeling now locally existing between the races. It must be tried as though both parties were members of the same race. I will not have it otherwise."
After the defense team lost its bid to have a change of venue, the first to be tried was Joe Henry Hampton, 20, on April 21, 1949. An all-white jury was selected that same morning. The state selected Hampton because he seemed to be the initial attacker. Each defendant was assigned an attorney and granted separate trials based on a request from the defense. It was decided that there was nothing to be gained if the group was tried together; it would be too easy for the jury to attribute the behavior of one or two to all seven men. Nevertheless, John Taylor and James Hairston agreed to a trial together.
The first person to take the witness stand in the Hampton trial was the victim herself. "Sobbing continuously, Mrs. Ruby Floyd, 32, took the stand in City Circuit court here today and pointed out Joe Henry Hampton as the first of several Negro men who criminally assaulted and raped her in East Martinsville last January 8," said the Martinsville Bulletin. Speaking in a clear but halting voice, she described in excruciating detail the indignities done to her by her attackers. "I told them that they shouldn't do this to me," she told the court, "that it was against the laws of the land and against the laws of the Bible." She said the men placed their hands over her mouth and also held her down while Hampton sexually assaulted her. "They kept my mouth covered all the time with their hands and tongues," she sobbed, "sucking my tongue and slobbering all over me." Mrs. Floyd pointed out Hampton in the courtroom and said he was the first to rape her.
During the afternoon session of his trial, Hampton took the stand to defend himself. He told the court that he was drunk that day and could not remember if he attacked Mrs. Floyd. He said he drank all afternoon with Millner, Frank and Howard Hairston and could not recall all the events. But Commonwealth prosecutor I. W. Cubine introduced Hampton's written confession of January 10 to the court. In it, Hampton did remember the entire ugly story of what happened near the railroad tracks. "When the lady started to holler," he said, "one of the boys slapped his hand over her mouth...When we got her over in the woods she was still trying to get loose from the boys...she was begging us not to do anything to her, that she had children at home and belonged to a church."
Closing statements were made shortly after his testimony, and by 5:20 p.m. that same day, the case was turned over to the jury. Barely thirty minutes later, at 5:50 p.m., the verdict was in. Hampton was found guilty of rape. "He showed no more emotion than he had throughout the trial," said the Bulletin, "in which he had been silent in his chair...with his head resting in the cup of his right hand."