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Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment

NCJ Number
E W Rise
Date Published
226 pages
This book examines the 1949 rape of a white woman in Martinsville, Va., and the subsequent legal procedures that led to the conviction and execution of seven young black men for the rape, along with the aftermath of the case.
In January 1949, a 32-year-old white woman in Martinsville, Virginia, accused seven young black men of raping her. Within 2 days, State and local police had rounded up all the suspects and extracted confessions from them. In a series of trials that lasted 11 days, all were found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentences were carried out in February 1951, amid a storm of protest from civil-rights advocates and death-penalty opponents. This book examines and describes in detail every aspect of the proceedings, from the commission of the crime through two sets of appeals. The author re-examines common assumptions about the administration of justice in the South. Although racial prejudice clearly contributed to the outcome of the case, so did concerns for due process, crime control, community stability, judicial restraint, and domestic security. The success of the due process campaign by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People helped curb the most egregious abuses of authority, but it did little to help defendants who conceded their guilt but protested unusually severe sentences. The author focuses on the efforts of the attorneys for the Martinsville Seven, who, rather than citing procedural errors, directly attacked the discriminatory application of the death penalty. This was the first case in which statistical evidence was used to substantiate systematic discrimination against blacks in capital cases. Chapter notes, a 429-item bibliography, and a subject index


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