On January 8, 1949, a group of seven young men sexually assaulted a 32-year-old woman in the city of Martinsville, Virginia. When the details of the offense were reported in the local newspaper, residents of the town were shocked that such a thing could happen in their community. The crime angered a lot of people. The suspects had been drinking all that day and later testimony indicated that at least four of the men were intoxicated during the event. The victim, who was married to a local store manager, suffered severe physical and psychological injuries. She was hospitalized and kept in seclusion until court proceedings began during April of 1949. All seven attackers were black. The victim was white. Despite the inflammatory racial aspects of the case, the judicial atmosphere was calm and deliberate. Too deliberate, some said. "The defense attorneys stood idly by while the prosecution, the judge and the all-white jury, with unbelievable speed-up, railroaded the seven," said one newspaper account of the trials (Daily Worker, June 1, 1949).
Martinsville historic marker
The case received ample national attention, though it is not well remembered today. That's because the guilt of the defendants was never in question. They confessed upon arrest and several of the men admitted to the assault at their trials. Though civil rights groups tried to help, public support for the defendants was tempered by the fact that they were guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. After a series of six trials, which took place over a period of eleven days, the defendants were convicted of rape in the first degree. One trial required just six hours from jury selection to verdict. Pursuant to Virginia statutes, all seven men received a death sentence. There has never been a case like it in the history of American criminal justice.
The defendants became known as the Martinsville Seven.