The state Board of Pardons and Paroles is about revisit one of Alabama’s most infamous miscarriages of justice.
The board Thursday is scheduled to consider a pardon petition for three of the nine Scottsboro Boys, black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women on train in north Alabama on March 25, 1931. The three men — Haywood Patterson, Charlie Weems and Andrew Wright — were convicted of rape after a six-year legal ordeal and were the only three whose sentences were never addressed in their lifetimes. The state ultimately dropped rape charges against five of the Scottsboro Boys; Clarence Norris was convicted of rape but received a pardon from Gov. George Wallace in 1976.
“History has shown time and time again that the nine young black men accused of raping two white women were innocent,” said Sheila Washington, founder and director of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in Scottsboro. “There’s a better understanding of the case than there was in the 30s. Books and authors and scholars have proven that they were innocent. I want the board to look at it in the sense that no crime was committed.”
Eddie Cook, Jr., the assistant executive director of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, said he expected the board to make a decision on the pardon application Thursday morning.
Initially, eight of the nine defendants in the Scottsboro Boys case were convicted of the rape charges and sentenced to death; one was considered too young to receive capital punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned those verdicts in a landmark decision, finding the defendants had received poor legal counsel. After a second round of trials — where one of the accusers recanted her story — the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdicts, due to the exclusion of blacks from the jury pool. Norris, Patterson, Weems and Wright were convicted after a third round of trials in 1937.
All nine men served time in jail, and all were eventually released. Norris, who died in 1989, was the only one to receive a pardon in his lifetime. Under Alabama law, only individuals with an outstanding felony conviction are eligible for a pardon; because six of the Scottsboro Boys had charges dropped or, in Norris’ case, recevied a pardon, the Board will not consider their cases.
Last spring, the Alabama Legislature approved a law allowing the Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant posthumous pardons for felonies crimes committed 75 years or more in the past. Those receiving the pardons must be deceased.
In October, a group of scholars delivered a 107-page petition to the Board seeking the pardon. The petition has the support of the judges and district attorneys in Morgan and Jackson Counties, where the trials of the defendants took place between 1931 and 1937.
John Miller, a University of Alabama professor who has worked on the petition application, said Wednesday the practical effect of pardoning the men remains to be seen.
“You can’t undo a wrong in history, but you can take a subsequent action to show that it’s the time to do the right thing,” Miller said. “It sends a message, hopefully, to other states where convictions like this have occurred that there is a public policy value associated with admitting justice system is not always perfect. There is a judicial interest in attempting to do the right thing, when past mistakes exist.”
Washington said she believes the pardons will allow some measure of closure on a tragic historic chapter.
“It was left unfinished,” she said. “They were left hanging in the balance of justice. Justice will come to them, and they’ll be cleared.”
– posted by Brian Lyman