The case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young African American men who were accused of raping two White women in Alabama in 1931, stands as a symbol of racist injustice and sheds light on the issue of false accusations in interpersonal violence. This essay details the facts and rulings of this case.
The young men, ages 13 to 19, had been traveling on a Southern Railroad tank car through Alabama to Memphis in March 1931 when a group of young White men challenged their right to be on the train. The argument escalated into a fistfight, which the White men lost, and when the train came to its next stop, the White men were thrown off. But 40 miles farther down the track, the train stopped in Paint Rock, Alabama, and was met by a large crowd of armed White men who took the African American men from the train, bound them together, and told them they were being arrested for assault and attempted murder. They were then transported to a jail in Scottsboro, Alabama, where two White women who had been on the train with them told the sheriff all nine African American men had raped them after the fight.
At that time, Black men accused of raping White women were often lynched and the legal system ignored the violence as a “private” form of justice. But the governor of Alabama as well as the country sheriff opposed lynching, even in cases of alleged
interracial rape. The Scottsboro Boys, as they came to be known, were brought to trial and defended by a White attorney who had been hired by Black church leaders. However, the defense attorney arrived at court drunk, so the judge appointed a local attorney who had come to the courtroom to observe the trial. Except for the defendants, everyone in the courtroom, including the judge, attorneys, and jurors, were White. The trials lasted 4 days, and eight of the defendants were convicted and sentenced to death by electrocution, despite a lack of valid evidence against them. A mistrial was declared in the case of 13-year-old Roy White, because although found guilty, the jurors could not agree on a death sentence or life imprisonment.
The trial of the Scottsboro Boys received extensive press coverage nationally and internationally. Outside the South, their convictions and impending executions were viewed as a legalized lynching. A group of Northern attorneys took on the case and won stays of execution from the Alabama Supreme Court. They then appealed the convictions on the grounds that pretrial publicity made a fair trial impossible, the defendants lacked adequate legal counsel, and Blacks were excluded from the jury. When the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the convictions, the attorneys were able to further stay the executions and were granted appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1932.
The case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court was Powell v. Alabama. In a 7–2 decision, the court overturned the original convictions, ruling that the defendants’ 14th Amendment right to due process had been violated because they had not been given adequate legal counsel. The court ordered that the defendants be retried.
At the second trial, in 1933, the Scottsboro Boys were represented by a well-known attorney from New York City, Samuel Leibowitz, who agreed to take the case pro bono. They were also assisted by a group of Northern investigators who came to Alabama to question witnesses and to collect evidence. During the second trial of the first defendant, Haywood Patterson, witnesses were recalled, and the experienced Leibowitz exposed the lies in their original testimony. Even one of the alleged victims recanted her testimony on the stand, after two White men testified that they had had sex with the women on the night of the alleged assaults. Nevertheless, the all-White jury convicted Patterson and sentenced him again to death by electrocution. The judge, however, declared a mistrial because the verdict was contrary to the evidence presented in court and granted the defense attorney’s motion for a new (third) trial for Patterson. By the time the third trial began, the original judge had been replaced by another judge, who openly expressed his opinion that the defendants were guilty and that Northern “outsiders” were interfering in the Southern courts. Patterson was found guilty a third time and sentenced to die by electrocution, as were the other defendants whose trials were held subsequently.
Undaunted, the Northern attorneys again appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, using the conviction of one of the defendants, Clarence Norris. The ground for the appeal, Norris v. Alabama, was that the defendant’s right to a fair trial had been violated because of the exclusion of Black citizens from the jury. The court agreed and ordered yet another trial for the defendant.
In 1935, the district attorney in Alabama won new indictments against the Scottsboro Boys, with a grand jury that had seated a single Black juror. Haywood Patterson was tried and convicted a fourth time in 1936, but was sentenced to 75 years in prison instead of death by electrocution. Four of the remaining defendants were also tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison, with terms ranging from 20 to 99 years. The remaining four defendants were released because they had been so young at the time of the alleged crime or because, after more than 6 years in the county jail, they were in very poor health. They were prohibited from ever returning to the state of Alabama.
The eight incarcerated Scottsboro Boys served from 15 to 20 years in prison before being paroled. Only two were ever officially pardoned, and these pardons came 20 to 45 years after the original charges were filed.
- Boyes-Watson, C. (2003). Crime and justice: A casebook approach. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Goodman, J. (1994). Stories of Scottsboro. New York: Vintage Books.
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