State Takes Steps towards Righting Racial Wrongs of the Past

Committee of Jurisdiction: Law, Justice, and Ethics
Related Policy Resolution: LJE 13-08

Introduction

The History of the Scottsboro Boys
Photo Courtesy: Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural CenterPhoto Courtesy: Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural CenterIn March of 1931, nine Black teens aged 13 to19 boarded a train in Scottsboro, Alabama. Their names were Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams, Andy Wright and Roy Wright. When a fight broke out, these young boys were arrested for assault and later, two White women accused the young men of rape. After a series of unjust trials, all were sentenced to death except for the 13 year-old.

An outpour of support came from around the country as the news of the case spread. Many prominent civil rights and labor organizations offered to provide legal services and assist the nine in appealing the decisions. Once new counsel was secured, all appealed in the district court. The appeals were denied. They then appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court on the bases of denial of a fair trial, insufficient representation, jury intimidation, and the exclusion of African-American jurors. The case was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court where the Court held that the boys had been denied due process because of the lack of African Americans on the jury, and sent the case back to Alabama for a retrial.

In this second set of trials, the boys were tried individually and found guilty. However, the judge set aside the jury’s verdicts and granted retrials. One of the women recanted her story and testified for the defense, admitting the boys had neither raped her nor the woman with whom she was traveling. When the boys were, again, found guilty in these retrials, the case was appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court which, again, overturned the convictions on the basis that the rulings were unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. As that amendment ensures due process in the states, the Court noted Blacks were excluded from the jury pool, disallowing a trial by a jury of peers. In the retrials, the boys now much older, were convicted of rape but were given life sentences in lieu of execution. A few of them were paroled after serving time in prison, and all of them died without ever being pardoned for their alleged crimes.

The case of the Scottsboro Boys has been largely recognized as a gross miscarriage of justice, and an example of the continuous struggle for civil rights in the state of Alabama and across the nation. Several family members and advocates called for the full exoneration of the men. Organizations like the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) remain steadfast advocates of the Scottsboro Boys and, too, call for their names to be cleared. What began as a train ride would become a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, would impact the judicial system, and would forever change the role African Americans play in it.

Course of Action: What Can Be Done?
Two actions can be taken to clear someone’s name once convicted: (1) an exoneration and (2) a pardon. Exoneration is a declaration of a person’s innocence after having been convicted; a pardon is forgiveness of the crime.   Exoneration is often the goal of those who submit petitions on behalf of incarcerated or convicted persons, but it can prove difficult to obtain--especially, in cases where the convicted may have died or too much time has lapsed to collect or retest evidence. There is no official record-keeping entity to track such actions, but a University of Michigan and Northwest University study found that more than 2,000 people who were falsely convicted of a crime have been exonerated in the last 23 years.

A posthumous pardon, which is a pardon granted to an individual after death, is the second tool for meting out justice. Given that instances of conviction occur improperly, granting posthumous pardons to those who have died while maintaining their innocence or arguing improper due process, gives families closure and finally brings cases to justice.



NBCSL Action

NBCSL advocated for the exoneration of the Scottsboro Boys in Resolution LJE 13-08. The exclusion of Black jurors, the lack of adequate counsel, and the racially violent atmosphere of the trial prevented the nine from receiving fair and unbiased trials. It robbed them of their lives, devastated their families, and sent a clear signal of terror to Blacks in the South. Even after their deaths, NBCSL recognized the importance of clearing the names of these young men-- an important step in remedying America’s dark past.



State Action

Alabama

I6T5415 Hall smallWhile gubernatorial pardons do not happen often, advocates fought to ensure this did occur in the case of the Scottsboro Boys. The Alabama Legislature took steps to clear the names of these young men after their deaths, by creating a way to pardon them posthumously.  

The process began with a bill submitted by NBCSL member, Representative Laura Hall, and Senator Arthur Orr. Senate Bill 97 authorizes the State of Alabama to allow for an individual’s pardon after he or she dies. “The Scottsboro Boys Act” permits a petition to be submitted by a circuit or district court judge in the district in which the person was convicted, on behalf of individuals who were convicted of crimes 80 years prior to the enactment of the bill. The reason for the pardon would be to remedy a “social injustice associated with racial discrimination evident by person’s circumstances of conviction.” It would also benefit the public welfare. In addition to this bill, House Joint Resolution 20 by Representatives Barbara Boyd (also an NBCSL member), John Robinson, and Wayne Johnson, calls for the exoneration of the nine boys, acknowledging they were victims of a gross injustice.

Both bills were signed earlier this year by Governor Robert Bentley, officially creating a mechanism for posthumous pardon, something various Alabama officials had long-argued was beyond their jurisdictional scope. The official pardon will come from the Alabama Board of Paroles and Pardons once a petition is submitted on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys. Granting the power to the governor to provide for a pardon, the Scottsboro Boys Act is an example for other states with histories plagued by racially motivated convictions, enabling them to seek pardons in these instances.

Texas

Posthumous pardons have also been used in other states to rectify cases of injustice. In 2012, Governor Rick Perry granted a posthumous pardon to Tim Cole who was accused and convicted of rape in 1985. While there was no direct evidence his conviction was racially motivated, the circumstances, including mistaken identification by the witness and a confession from the actual perpetrator, suggested that Cole’s race played a part in his conviction. Citing Cole’s conviction as a miscarriage of justice, the Texas Legislature passed a bill to not only exonerate Cole but to also provide compensation for individuals who have been wrongfully convicted.

Conclusion
NBCSL commends the State of Alabama for taking steps publicly to acknowledge this and move toward racial healing, and profoundly hopes other states follow suit. Whether against the backdrop of a painful racial past, or an isolated instance of wrongful incarceration, legislators can look to posthumous pardons as a viable tool to incorporate into their state’s criminal justice system.

Resources
  • Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center: The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center commemorates the lives and legacy of nine young African Americans who, in the 1930s, became international symbols of race-based injustice in the American South, and celebrates the positive actions of those of all colors, creeds and origins who have taken a stand against the tyranny of racial oppression.
  • The Innocence Project: The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, more than 300 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 18 who served time on death row.