The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment

Overview

In January 1949 a thirty-two-year-old white woman in Martinsville, Virginia, accused seven young black men of raping her. Within two days state and local police had rounded up all the suspects and extracted confessions from them. In a series of trials that lasted eleven days, all were found guilty and sentenced to death - a sentence that was carried out, amid a storm of protest from civil-rights advocates and death-penalty opponents, in February 1951. Here is the first comprehensive treatment of the Martinsville ...
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Overview

In January 1949 a thirty-two-year-old white woman in Martinsville, Virginia, accused seven young black men of raping her. Within two days state and local police had rounded up all the suspects and extracted confessions from them. In a series of trials that lasted eleven days, all were found guilty and sentenced to death - a sentence that was carried out, amid a storm of protest from civil-rights advocates and death-penalty opponents, in February 1951. Here is the first comprehensive treatment of the Martinsville case. Covering every aspect of the proceedings, from the commission of the crime through two sets of appeals, Eric Rise reexamines common assumptions about the administration of justice in the South. Although racial prejudice undeniably 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 NAACP 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. It was the first case in which statistical evidence was used to substantiate systematic discrimination against blacks in capital cases.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This is a careful exposition of a notorious Virginia case that led to the 1951 electrocution of seven young black men convicted of raping a white woman. Rise, who teaches sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, first sketches the Jan. 8, 1949, attack of Ruby Floyd in a black neighborhood in the western Virginia town of Martinsville. The black community, he notes, was shocked not by the convictions but by the death sentences. The NAACP and a discomfiting rival, the left-wing Civil Rights Congress, campaigned against the convictions. The author charges that the judicial system, which rejected several appeals, ignored the climate of ``hostility and prejudice'' against the defendants, valuing social order over due process. Most important, the appeals marked the NAACP's first attempt to use equal-protection arguments (previously cited in desegregation cases) to challenge racially disparate sentences. Such arguments persist today. Photos. (June)
Booknews
A scholarly treatment of the Martinsville case in which seven black men were convicted of rape in Virginia and executed in 1951. Rise (sociology and criminal justice, U. of Delaware) shows how the interplay between due process, crime control, and community stability factored into the severe sentence imposed on the men, and how the success of groups such as the NAACP to curb abuses attacked, for the first time, the discriminatory application of the law against blacks in capital cases. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Journal of American History

The story of the Martinsville Seven is a fascinating and important one, and Rise tells it well.... He has written a book that historians as well as lawyers can comprehend and that both ought to read.

American Journal of Legal History

Rise has produced a model study which reminds us that formalism can serve to defend unfairness. His study also underscores the relationship between law and society.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813915678
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/1995
  • Series: Constitutionalism and Democracy Series
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.27 (w) x 9.27 (h) x 0.91 (d)

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