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A Reasonable Doubt
HISTORY AT MIDDLE DISTANCE The charge was rape. The accuser was a southern white woman, the accused were Negroes. But what kind of woman was Victoria Price? And what had really happened aboard that freight train?
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
“Have you agreed upon a verdict?” Horton asked the foreman. He replied, “We have, your honor,” and handed a heavily creased slip of paper to the bailiff, who laid it on the judge’s bench. Horton unfolded the slip of paper and read the large pencilled letters: “We find the defendant guilty as charged and fix the punishment at death in the electric chair.” There was not a sound in the courtroom as spectators craned to see the defense table. That night a shaking Haywood Patterson would clutch a prison Bible in fear, but he had decided beforehand he would never show his inner terror to the gawking white spectators. His face did not change expression. Leibowitz looked as though he had been struck; he leaned back slackly in his chair.
After the jury had been dismissed and a postponement of further trials announced, Leibowitz walked to the bench and grasped Horton’s hand. The judge warmly returned the handshake. “I am taking back to New York with me a picture of one of the finest jurists I have ever met,” said Leibowitz, his voice shaking with emotion. “I am sorry I cannot say as much for the jury which has decided this case against the evidence.”
Later, reporters learned from several jurors that they had not even discussed, much less considered, the testimony of Ruby Bates. The twelve men had taken their first ballot five minutes after the judge gave them the case. The vote was: guilty 12, not guilty o. The rest of their deliberation time had been taken up with the question of the sentence. Eleven jurors had voted immediately to send Patterson to the electric chair. One, the foreman, had held out until Sunday morning for life imprisonment.
On June 22, 1933, ignoring a warning that he was jeopardizing his own chances for re-election, Judge Norton granted a defense motion and overturned Haywood Patterson’s conviction. In a devastating indictment of the state’s case, he concluded that Victoria Price’s testimony was not only uncorroborated, but also improbable and contradicted by evidence which “greatly preponderates in favor of the defendant.” To reporters, Horton implied he would also reverse any future convictions based upon her testimony.
Defense attorneys hoped that Norton’s meticulous and persuasively written decision would cause a shift in public opinion in the state. It did not. At the instigation of Attorney General Knight, Horion was removed from the case and another jurist more amenable to the state’s position was appointed. (The warning to Judge Horion was not just a threat: in the 1934 Democratic primary he lost his seat on the bench, despite a vigorous campaign. That same year, Attorney General Knight was elected lieutenant governor.) When Patterson and Clarence Norris, another of the Scottsboro boys, were tried again in December of 1933, both received the death sentence. In 1934, the United States Supreme Court accepted the defense contention that Negroes were systematically excluded from Alabama’s juries and gave Patterson and Norris another trial. But in 1936, Patterson was convicted for the fourth time and received a sentence of seventy-five years.
The following year, the state began prosecution of the remaining eight defendants, and in rapid succession juries convicted Clarence Norris, Charley Weems, Andrew Wright, and Ozie Powell. But Lieutenant Governor Knight was dead by this time, and the state was in a mood to compromise. Instead of death, the assistant attorney general had asked only for life imprisonment. In the midst of the trials, it was suddenly announced that the state would dismiss the charges against the remaining four defendants. Although WiIUe Roberson and Olen Montgomery had already spent six years in jail, it was admitted that they were “unquestionably innocent.” Since Leroy Wright and Eugene Williams had been only twelve and thirteen years of age in 1931, “the State thinks that the ends of justice would be met … by releasing these two juveniles on condition that they leave the State never to return.” On this grotesque note, the public story of Scottsboro came to an end.
Of the five who remained in jail, Patterson successfully escaped to Detroit years later, and eventually died of cancer in a Michigan jail. The other four were finally paroled. Andrew Wright, the last of the parolees, left prison nineteen years after he had been taken from the freight train in Paint Rock.
In 1939, Victoria Price offered to recant—for a substantial fee. No one cared to pay it. She and Ruby Bates both died in the same year, 1961, in towns thirty miles apart.