By Chris Hoenig
Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems and Andy Wright fought a racist legal system for decades, serving prison time for a crime they didn’t commit. On Thursday, they finally had their names cleared.
The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to approve posthumous pardons for the trio, making them the last of the Scottsboro Boys to be legally absolved of rape charges that stole the national spotlight and stand as one of the turning points for equal protection in American history.
The Scottsboro Boys were nine Black teens and young adults “hoboing” on a freight train from Chattanooga to Memphis when they were arrested by a sheriff’s posse in northeast Alabama in 1931. They were charged with raping two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, on board and immediately put through a rushed trial in the town of Scottsboro, Ala. Defended by a real-estate lawyer and a criminal attorney who had not set foot in a courtroom in years, eight of the nine were quickly convicted and sentenced to death; the trial of the youngest, 13-year-old Roy Wright, ended in a hung jury when the panel couldn’t agree whether Wright should get the death penalty.
On appeal, the Alabama State Supreme Court upheld seven of the eight convictions and death sentences, ordering a new trial for 13-year-old Eugene Williams because he was a juvenile. Chief Justice John C. Anderson dissented, however, and his disapproval on the grounds that the defendants had not received a fair trial set the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that the Scottsboro Boys had been denied due process and their right to effective legal counsel. The case was sent back to Alabama to be tried again.
For the second round of trials, the case was moved to courts in rural Decatur, Ala., near the homes of the victims and in an area known for racism. The prosecution’s case began when new high-powered defense lawyers pointed out inconsistencies in witness testimony, a lack of physical evidence and statements from others aboard the train that night and when the men were arrested. The crushing blow came when Ruby Bates recanted her testimony, admitting that Price made up the accusations and asked her to go along with it to keep from being arrested herself.
Still, all-white juries convicted all of the Scottsboro Boys and the death sentences were reimposed. Again, the rulings were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which this time overturned the verdicts on the grounds that Blacks had been excluded from the juries because of race. The cases were sent back to Alabama for a third round of trials.
This time, with Price as the sole accuser, Creed Conyer was selected to sit on the grand jury that would decide whether to bring charges against the men. Conyer was the first Black man to sit on an Alabama grand jury in more than a half-century, but only a two-thirds majority was needed to indict and all nine were once again charged with rape.
Patterson, Weems, Wright and Clarence Norris were all convicted. Norris was again sentenced to death (though his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment), Patterson was ordered to spend 75 years in jail, while Wright and Weems were given 99- and 105-year terms, respectively. Charges against the remaining five were dismissed.
Clarence Norris was pardoned by Governor George Wallace in 1976, and was the only known living Scottsboro Boy at the time. He died in 1989. The five defendants who did not face a third round of trials were ineligible for pardons under a new state law because they had no standing convictions.
Many believe their case was inspiration for To Kill a Mockingbird, but author Harper Lee—who grew up in Alabama during the time of the Scottsboro and Decatur trials and included many autobiographical elements in the novel—denies this. NBC released a made-for-TV movie called Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys in 1976, while the 2006 film Heavens Fall, starring Timothy Hutton, is also based on the trials. The nine also served as the inspiration for a Broadway musical, The Scottsboro Boys, which debuted in 2010.