The Scottsboro Boys
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In March of 1931, a petty conflict between young white and black men hitching a ride on a freight train set a tragic chain of events in motion. The so-called Scottsboro Boys case ruined the lives of the black men charged, ended the career of a judge, and polarized the sense of justice of a nation.
The trials of the nine black men, ranging in age from 13 to 21, began twelve days after their arrest. They were tried two or three at a time, by all-white juries; all the Scottsboro Boys were quickly found guilty and sentenced to execution, with the exception of Roy Wright, who, as the youngest defendant, was reluctantly sentenced to a mere life in prison.
The three main reasons for such a speedy and uncontested verdict in each trial were the incompetent representation of the boys, the witnesses against them, and most importantly, the social climate of the time.
In an odd courtroom conversation, the judge asked Stephen Roddy to “appear for these defendants…if local counsel are willing to appear and assist you under the circumstances all right, but I [Judge Sutherland] will not appoint them”. Roddy was a real estate attorney from Tennessee, who began the trial “so stewed he could hardly walk straight”. His local assistance came from Milo Moody, a “doddering, extremely unreliable, senile individual [who was] losing whatever ability he once had”. The pair agreed to let the boys be tried in groups, met with them for just a few minutes before the trial began, did not help them prepare their testimony, did not attempt to expose the lies of the witnesses, and gave no closing argument. The incompetence of these attorneys was the basis for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to order a retrial; [the defendants] “were denied due process of law and the equal protection of the laws, in contravention of the Fourteenth Amendment”.
The second factor that virtually predetermined the guilty verdicts was the testimony of the witnesses. Beyond a doubt, the most colorful and popular witness was Victoria Price, the more confident of the two white women who claimed to have been raped. A known prostitute, she had every reason to divert attention from her own violation of the Mann Act. Suddenly “the same people [who had before treated her like] a piece of poor white trash…treated them as white southern women, poor but virtuous, for the first time in their lives”.