The Martinsville Seven
The local press coverage of the crime was subdued. The first article to appear in the newspapers was published on January 10, 1949 in the Martinsville Bulletin. The headline that day was Seven Men Charged With Assault On Woman Here. "Seven Negro men ranging in age from 18 to 37 were charged here today with criminally assaulting the 32 year old wife of a Martinsville store manager early Saturday night," read the story's lead paragraph. The race of the defendants and the victim were clearly stated, though in the city of Martinsville, it was already well known. A mass lynching was never a reality, but the possibility of vigilante action was not ignored. Authorities were quick to recognize the threat. They had the prisoners separated and housed at jails in Patrick County and the City of Roanoke. This placement made organized violence against the men difficult, if not impossible. Unlike many other southern states, however, Virginia did not have an extensive history of mob violence or lynching.
According to Eric Rise's book on the case, The Martinsville Seven, "the defendants had been secretly transported into the city early that morning, and no public notice of the hearing had been issued." Authorities felt that the less publicity the case received, the less chance of any type of community unrest. Dozens of police guarded the courthouse when the accused were brought in. Their confessions were introduced as evidence, which had a powerful impact on the court. When she testified, Mrs. Floyd faced all the defendants for the first time since the attack. One defense attorney asked her why she didn't scream for help during the assault. "I didn't try to holler," she replied, "because they told me they'd kill me if I did." It was important testimony, because it showed that force was used on the victim, a legal requirement for successful prosecution on a rape charge.
The case went forward to the Henry County Grand Jury in early April 1949. Only one witness was needed to testify State Police Sgt. James H. Barnes. Based on his testimony and the written confessions of the accused, all seven men were indicted on April 11 on rape charges. According to Virginia law, the penalty for such a crime was death.
And everyone knew it.