Scottsboro Trial

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Scottsboro Trial

Excerpt from "Scottsboro Case Goes to the Jury"

Reprinted from the New York Times

Published on January 23, 1936

"It takes courage to do the right thing in the face of public clamor for the wrong thing, but when justice is not administered fairly, . . . there is no protection for any one, man or woman, black or white." These words were spoken in January 1936 by defense attorney C. L. Watts at the fourth trial of Haywood Patterson, one of nine young black men known as the Scottsboro Boys, accused of raping two white women. The words struck at the heart of a criminal justice system heavily biased against black Americans. Watts urged the all white jury "to do the right thing" in spite of heavy public pressure for a guilty decision. The "right thing" in Watts's thinking was to deliver a not-guilty verdict.

"It takes courage to do the right thing in the face of public clamor for the wrong thing."

History of the Scottsboro Boys

In 1931 it was common for the unemployed to hitch rides on trains and travel from town to town in search of a job, adventure, or a way home. On March 25, nine young black men jumped on board a Southern Railroad pulling out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charles Weems,
Eugene Williams, Andy Wright, and Roy Wright ranged in age from twelve to twenty years. Just after the train crossed into Alabama it stopped for water in Stevenson where a fight broke out between some of the black youths and white teenagers on board. Outnumbered, the white teens either jumped or were thrown from the train as it pulled from the station.

Seeking revenge, some of the white youth reported to the Stevenson train master that the black youth had assaulted two white women still on the train. The train master telegraphed ahead to the next station, Paint Rock, Alabama, where law enforcement officers boarded the train and rounded up every black youth they could find. The two white women emerged and accused the blacks of raping them.

The black boys were taken to a jail in Scottsboro, Alabama, hence the name Scottsboro Boys. The arrest of the nine was the beginning of repeated trials, convictions, appeals, and more trials over the next six years.

The alleged rape victims in the Scottsboro case were Victoria Price, age twenty-one, and teenager Ruby Bates. Price and Bates were from poor families who lived in the racially mixed town of Huntsville, Alabama. They, like the Scottsboro Boys, were riding the rails in search of work. When questioned by law enforcement officers they stated they had been beaten and raped by the black boys on the train.

Less than two hours after the alleged attack, however, Scottsboro physician Dr. R. R. Bridges examined Price and Bates and found no cuts, bruises, blood, or other injuries consistent with an attack. He reported the women were calm and did not appear to be under stress.

On March 31 all nine of the Scottsboro Boys were indicted for rape. Within weeks juries convicted and sentenced eight of the young men to death in the electric chair. Twelve-year-old Roy Wright's ordeal ended in a mistrial when eleven of the jurors held out for the death penalty but one juror disagreed.

Since the arrest of the Scottsboro Boys, anger and dismay had been growing across the United States and in other parts of the world over what appeared to be racially motivated arrests and prosecution of the boys. Demonstrations in support of the Scottsboro Boys occurred outside a number of U.S. embassies in Europe. In 110 American cities, 300,000 black and white workers gathered to protest the convictions on May 1.

On May 5 in Washington, D.C., some 200,000 supporters demanded freedom for the Scottsboro Boys. The International Labor Defense (ILD), the legal arm of the American Communist Party, declared the case a racial "frame-up" and example of the oppression of black people in the United States. ILD took over the legal appeal process for the boys when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) withdrew from the case due to the nature of the charges.

In January 1932 the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed all the convictions and death sentences with the exception of Eugene Williams. In November, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Powell v. Alabama that Alabama had denied the defendants proper legal representation or due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment states that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Due process means fair treatment in all phases of the criminal justice system.

For the second round of trials ILD called in a well-known criminal defense attorney, Samuel Leibowitz. The medical testimony of Dr. Bridges convinced Leibowitz of the boys' innocence. He had never before been associated with racial issues but was appalled at what he viewed as the extreme unjust prosecution of the Scottsboro cases. Leibowitz worked for several years on the cases but did not charge any fees.

Haywood Patterson's second trial was before Alabama judge James Horton in March 1933. The trial took a dramatic turn when Ruby Bates stated that she and Price had made up the entire story. Price, however, stayed with her original testimony that they were raped. The jury again delivered a guilty verdict and the death penalty. Judge Horton, believing the verdict unjustified, granted a motion for a new trial. In December 1933 a jury again found Patterson guilty and sentenced him to die. About the same time, Clarence Norris endured his second trial, which ended with a conviction and the death penalty.

Leibowitz, stunned by the verdicts, appealed unsuccessfully to the Alabama Supreme Court, but moved the cases on to the U.S. Supreme Court. In April 1935 the Supreme Court reversed both convictions in Norris v. Alabama. The Court found that black Americans had been excluded from serving on the juries; therefore neither Patterson nor Norris had been judged by their equals or peers. The ruling meant the trials violated the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee to equal protection under the law.

The following excerpt reports on Patterson's fourth trial held in January 1936. The presiding judge was William W. Callahan. Attorneys prosecuting Patterson were Melvin C.
Hutson and Thomas E. Knight Jr., the lieutenant governor of Alabama. Defending Patterson were Leibowitz and C. L. Watts. Watts was an Alabama lawyer brought into the Scottsboro case by Leibowitz.

The jury again consisted of only whites, in this case twelve white farmers. The Supreme Court decision of Norris v. Alabama was dealt with by having five blacks in the pool from which the jury was selected. All five, however, were eliminated by the prosecution.

The defense charged numerous times during the two-day trial that Judge Callahan was impatient and acted annoyed by the defense. His comments repeatedly suggested the defense attorneys were wasting everyone's time. The defense moved several times for a mistrial since this conduct influenced the jurors against the defense. Judge Callahan denied all motions for a mistrial.

Judge Callahan went so far as to halt Patterson's trial for a few hours while jurors were chosen for the trials involving Andrew Wright and Charles Weems, which were to be held the following week. As described under the subtitle "Defense Objections Overruled" Wright and Weems sat "manacled" (shackled) in chains in full view of the Patterson jurors during this time. The sight of the black youth in chains, defense attorneys argued, would prejudice the jurors against them.

The defense was able to enter the previous testimony of Dr. R. R. Bridges, about his examination of Price and Bates hours after the alleged attack and how there was no evidence of such an attack. Patterson plus four other Scottsboro Boys were put on the stand and testified that they had not touched Price or Bates; the boys further testified they had never even seen the women. Discounting Dr. Bridges and the boys' words, prosecutor Hutson, in closing statements, emotionally pleaded with the jury to protect the "rights of womanhood of Alabama" and convict Patterson.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from "Scottsboro Case Goes to the Jury":

  • The Scottsboro trials are considered one of the most significant legal battles of the twentieth century. Scottsboro resulted in two U.S. Supreme Court decisions that contributed to the start of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s.
  • The South at the time was completely racially segregated (blacks and whites kept separate in public places) with blacks treated as inferior humans of little worth.
  • The prejudiced and impatient comments of Judge Callahan were typical of Southern judges hearing cases involving black Americans.
  • The following excerpt is an account of the FOURTH trial that defendant Patterson endured.

Excerpt from "Scottsboro Case Goes to the Jury"

DECATUR, Ala., Jan. 22.—Haywood Patterson's fourth trial for his life on a charge of rape ended today, as have all the other trials in the famous Scottsboro case, with an appeal to the passions of the jury. Summing up for the prosecution , Melvin C. Hutson, the local solicitor , told the jurors that the womanhood of Alabama was looking to them for "protection." If Patterson were not made to pay with his life for a crime of which he swore today that he was innocent, Mr. Hutson said, the women of the State would "have to go around with six-shooters" to protect themselves. . . .

Defense Objections Overruled

A panel of 100 talesmen has been drawn for the Norris trial and Judge Callahan yesterday interrupted Patterson's trial to draw veniremen to sit in judgment of Charlie Williams and Andy Wright next week. He did this in full view of the jury trying Patterson's case and this morning Mr. Watts asked Judge Callahan to declare a mistrial on the grounds that bringing the Negroes manacled into court was prejudicial.

Angrily denying the motion, Judge Callahan pointed out that the defense had registered no objection when he announced what he was going to do. Mr. Watts quickly renewed his motion on the grounds that the mere announcement was sufficient basis for a mistrial and Judge Callahan, with rising choler denied the motion.

"I now move," began Mr. Watts, but Judge Callahan cut him short, declaring that he "did not want to hear any further argument," and that the court would "not be tampered with." Twice later in the day the defense moved unsuccessfully for a mistrial because of comments by Mr. Hutson on the testimony of the Negro defendants.

Before the closing arguments began, the defense succeeded in reading into the record the testimony of Dr. R. R. Bridges, a physician who examined Victoria Price, the complaining witness, within an hour after she was taken from the freight train on which she says she was assaulted by a dozen Negroes.

Physician Contradicts Woman

Dr. Bridges, a Scottsboro physician, was too ill to come to court, but he testified before Judge James E. Horton at one of Patterson's earlier trials that the woman's pulse and breathing were normal and that her body showed no sign of cuts and bruises with which she testified at this trial that she was covered.

The doctor had testified also that he found physical indications which Judge Callahan refused to permit the defense to prove might have been accounted for by events which happened in a hobo jungle in Chattanooga the night before Ruby Bates and Mrs. Price hoboed their way home to Huntsville with their escorts .

One of these, Lester Carter, testified today that he was with the girls aboard the freight train when a fight broke out between colored and white vagrants who were also on the train. It was immaterial , Judge Callahan ruled, whether he and Orville Gilley had spent the night with Ruby and Mrs. Price.

Later when Mr. Knight was extracting in detail from Carter the various stages of his wanderings from coast to coast, Samuel S. Leibowitz, chief defense counsel , protested. Judge Callahan held that the evidence was admissible . Mr. Leibowitz inquired why he had not been permitted to trace the movements of Victoria Price prior to the alleged attack and Judge Callahan threatened to cite him for contempt .

"I won't have insinuations that you were denied something that somebody else got," he shouted. Carter was permitted to testify, however, that he overheard Mrs. Price urge one of the white hoboes while she was in jail at Scottsboro to pretend that he was her brother.

Carter said he had given up hobo life and was now a laborer for the Board of Education in New York.

Patterson on the Stand

Patterson next took the stand. Over and over he denied that he had touched Mrs. Price or Ruby Bates, or that he had even seen any woman on the train. The white hoboes had been throwing stones at him and the "other colored," he explained, and he had fought with them "to make them stop bothering us."

Mr. Hutson, cross-examining the defendant, blustered and stormed about the courtroom, repeating the Negro's answers to his questions with obvious scorn and disbelief in his voice and manner. Sometimes he didn't wait for Patterson to answer one question before he asked another, and he frequently attributed words to the witness that the Negro had not uttered.

At last the local prosecutor fell back upon the record of the original trials at Scottsboro, although Mr. Leibowitz protested that the record was inadmissible on the grounds that the Supreme Court of the United States had declared the whole proceeding illegal because the defendants were not adequately represented there by counsel.

Patterson said he did not remember testifying as the record indicated he had done when he was asked what he saw aboard the freight train on March 25, 1931. According to the transcript from which Mr. Hutson read, the Negro had testified that he saw all but three of the nine Negroes in custody attack the white girls. Later, reading from another part of the same record, Mr. Leibowitz showed that Patterson had testified just as he had today.

Four of Patterson's co-defendants followed him on the witness stand. They were Olin Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Ozie Powell and Andy Wright, Negro boys who have grown to manhood in jail. All denied participating in any attack on the white women.

Hutson Addresses Jury

The State offered no rebuttal , and after a short recess Mr. Hutson began.

It was then that he made his appeal for the protection of womanhood, and he warned the jurors that when they had rendered their verdict and gone home they would have to face their neighbors. His voice rose to a crescendo as he choked back a sob evoked by his own eloquence in lauding the martyrdom of Victoria Price.

"She fights for the rights of womanhood of Alabama," he shouted.

Mr. Watts, a prominent attorney in the home town of Mrs. Price, made a calm and detailed analysis of the evidence submitted, asserting that the story told by Mrs. Price had been refuted by the State's own witnesses "and contradicted by the physical facts in the case." Rape was a crime of secrecy, not one committed in broad daylight in full view of the public highway by a dozen men strangers to each other.

Introducing himself as a "friend and neighbor" from Madison County, Mr. Watts criticized the State for not placing Orville Gilley, an eye-witness of the alleged crime, on the witness stand, and remarked that he could not refrain from wondering why the State had left it for the defense to present medical testimony which was in the State's possession.

He too urged the jurors to weigh the evidence with common sense, and in answer to Mr. Hutson's plea for the protection of womanhood appealed for "protection of the innocent."

"It takes courage to do the right thing in the face of public clamor for the wrong thing, but when justice is not administered fairly, governments disintegrate and there is no protection for any one, man or woman, black or white."

Mr. Knight, who had the last word for the prosecution, summed up briefly and with restraint, confining himself to the evidence and arguing that all the testimony submitted, save that of Patterson himself, tended to bear out the complainant's story.

Judge Charges the Jury

Two hours were consumed by Judge Callahan in charging the jury and court did not recess until 9:30p.m. The judge dwelt at length on the legal definition of the crime charged, on the differences between direct and circumstantial evidence and on the meaning of such terms as reasonable doubt .

He said that in weighing the testimony of Patterson and Victoria Price, the jurors might regard them as "interested" witnesses and consider that in deciding what weight to give it. Since the complainant was a white woman, he said, they must assume she did not yield willingly to the Negro defendant.

As Judge Callahan continued Patterson's face was glum and he slumped lower and lower in his chair. He perked up a little, however, when the court began reading a score or specific charges, requested by the defense. These emphasized the fact that the defendant was presumed to be innocent until proved guilty and that he must be acquitted if the possibility of his innocence was compatible with reason.

After the reading of almost every one of these requested charges, Judge Callahan expressed a comment of his own such as:

"That's just saying what I said in another way," or "that just means all twelve of you have to agree on a verdict—well, of course you do."

What happened next . . .

Haywood Patterson was once again found guilty. He received a sentence of seventy-five years imprisonment. This was the first time in Alabama history that a black man
convicted of raping a white woman had not been sentenced to death.

In July 1937 the last trials of the Scottsboro Boys came to a close. On July 12 Clarence Norris began his third trial, which ended three days later with a conviction and death sentence. Andrew Wright was convicted on July 22 and received a ninety-nine year imprisonment. Two days later Charles Weems received a seventy-five-year sentence. Ozie Powell had his charges dropped when he agreed to plead guilty to assault and received a twenty-year sentence.

In a surprise move, the State of Alabama dropped charges and announced freedom for Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams, and Roy Wright. None of the four were ever tried a second time but had been in prison since 1931.

Agitation for the release of the other imprisoned Scottsboro Boys continued by various interested groups across the United States. Charles Weems was paroled in 1943, Ozie Powell in 1946, and Andrew Wright in 1950. Clarence Norris was the only defendant who lived to see an official pardon in 1976 by the State of Alabama.

Following Patterson's conviction in 1937 he was imprisoned in Alabama's Atmore Prison. An unpopular prisoner, he constantly had to defend himself from other prisoners and guards. In 1941 Patterson survived being stabbed twenty times by a friend who a guard had paid to kill him. He stated he lost faith in everything but his knife, which he said had saved him many times.

Patterson taught himself to read using a Bible and dictionary. Transferred to Kilby Prison, then a prison farm, Patterson managed to escape. He ended up in Detroit and the Michigan governor refused to allow him to be taken back to Alabama. While in Detroit, Patterson, aided by journalist Earl Conrad, completed his autobiography Scottsboro Boy, published in 1950. At the end of 1950 Patterson was again in trouble with the law. He was involved in a bar fight that resulted in a stabbing death. Convicted of manslaughter in 1951, Patterson died in jail of cancer on August 24, 1952.

Did you know . . .

  • Nineteenth-century criminal laws were clearly racially discriminatory. For example, a Georgia law specified a mandatory death sentence for rape of a white woman by a black man. A white man raping a white woman led to a two- to twenty-year sentence. Rape of a black woman had no mandatory sentence. Versions of such laws particularly in the southern United States carried on into the twentieth century.
  • The Scottsboro case divided the northern and southern states more sharply than any racial event since the American Civil War (1861–65; war in the United States between the Union [North], who was opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [South], who was in favor of slavery).
  • Ultimately, none of the Scottsboro Boys were executed. The application of the death penalty against blacks, however, has drawn much attention in the criminal justice system and in the general public. Nationwide over half—55 percent—of those individuals executed between 1930 and 1991 were black.

Consider the following . . .

  • Find three instances in the news account where Judge Callahan acted with bias and prejudice against the defense.
  • Why did denying proper counsel (attorneys) violate due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment (see U.S. Supreme Court case Powell v. Alabama, 1932)?
  • Whey did excluding black Americans from juries deprive blacks of equal legal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment (see U.S. Supreme Court case Norris v. Alabama, 1935)?
  • The American Communist Party was thoroughly involved in the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys. It cited the case as an example of the American justice system's failure. Research the Communist Party in the United States in the 1930s. During this time period, why were a significant number of Americans willing to listen to the Communist Party's arguments?

Prosecution: Those lawyers bringing legal action against the accused.

Local solicitor: Chief city government lawyer.

Talesmen: Individuals from which a jury is chosen.

Veniremen: Individuals chosen for the jury.

Williams: His name was actually Charlie Weems; the newspaper erred.

Mistrial: A trial declared invalid because of technical errors or misconduct that eliminated the possibility of a legal and just decision.

Manacled: Handcuffed and chained.

Choler: Anger.

Tampered: Interfered.

Hobo jungle: Hobo camps repeatedly used in the woods along railroad lines.

Hoboed: travel by hitching onto trains and living in hobo camps.

Escorts: Men accompanying the women, Lester Carter and Orville Gilley.

Vagrants: Individuals wandering about without an apparent permanent home or financial means of support.

Immaterial: Unimportant.

Chief defense counsel:

Lawyer in charge of defending the accused.

Admissible: Allowed to be presented to the jury in the trial.

Contempt: Disrespect of the judge.

Insinuations: Suggestions.

Blustered: To talk or act noisily and in a pompous or self-important manner.

Original trials: Patterson's first three trials.

Inadmissible: Not allowed to be used in the trial.

Rebuttal: Arguments against testimony.

Rendered: Delivered.

Crescendo: Reached a high volume.

Martyrdom: To suffer for a cause.

Refuted: Shown to be false.

Contradicted: The opposite was suggested.

Clamor: Insistence.

Complainant: Person making accusations, Mrs. Price.

Direct: Hard evidence supporting the charge.

Circumstantial: Indirect evidence, such as events surrounding the case, that suggest the charges are true.

Reasonable doubt:

Uncertainty about the guilt of the accused.

Acquitted: Freed from charges; not guilty.

For More Information

Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

Goodman, James. Stories of Scottsboro. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.

Patterson, Haywood, and Earl Conrad. Scottsboro Boy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1950.

Web Sites

"Scottsboro: An American Tragedy." PBS Online. (accessed on August 19, 2004).

"Scottsboro Boys." Decatur/Morgan County Convention & Visitors Bureau. (accessed on August 19, 2004).