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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
Lank, raw-boned and more than six feet tall, Horton strongly resembled photographs of the young and beardless Lincoln. His family had served prominently in the political life of the ante-bellum South, and the fifty-fiveyear-old judge spoke without self-consciousness of his obligation to uphold the integrity of the family name. His views on the Negro, like those of the traditionally conservative southerner, were kindly and well-meaning, with a trace of noblesse oblige , yet when one of the two Negro reporters present introduced himself on the first day of the trial, Horton, in the presence of disapproving townspeople, unhesitatingly offered a firm handshake. In the Decatur courtroom he was easygoing and lenient, unbothered by the clatter of reporters’ noisy typewriters. During the two-week trial he had to rule upon many questions of law that he had accepted without question throughout his legal career; generally he remained calm and unruffled, his voice at an even, conversational level.
To the disappointment of the spectators, the sensational testimony that they expected to hear did not begin right away. In fact, the whole first week of the trial was taken up with a complex constitutional duel between defense and state attorneys over the question of Negro jurors, and the crowd quickly lost interest. Leibowitz argued that Alabama officials had defied the Fourteenth Amendment by excluding Negroes from the Jackson County juries which had originally convicted the nine youths, and from the Morgan County venire from which a new jury would now be chosen to retry the first de- fendant, Haywood Patterson. The absence of Negro jurors was incontestable; a courtroom official said he could not recall seeing black men in the jury box since before the turn of the century. But a Scottsboro civic leader explained on the witness stand that the absence of Negro jurors was not a matter of racial prejudice. It was simply that Neerroes had not been “trained for jury duty in our county … and I don’t think their judgment—you could depend on it altogether.” Besides, he added as the spectators chuckled, “they will nearly all steal.” One jury commissioner told Leibowitz that Negroes were not excluded for any particular reason; “Negroes was never discussed.”
Thomas Knight, Jr., Alabama’s thirty-four-year-old attorney general, was present to handle the prosecution. Affable and charming, he ordinarily conveyed the image of well-bred southern gentility. In the courtroom, however, he was a fierce antagonist. Nervously pacing across the courtroom, he alternately cajoled and threatened the apprehensive Negro leaders from Scottsboro and Decatur who testified on the jury question. The nineteen witnesses included a Pullman porter, the owner of a drycleaning shop, a dentist, a seminary-trained minister, and a doctor educated at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and the University of Illinois. Knight succeeded in showing that some of them were unaware of the intricate details of the jury selection system and that others did not know all the legal requirements for jury duty. He was not able to conceal, however, what Leibowitz wanted to prove: that the Negro wit- nesses were completely qualified to serve as jurors yet that, because of their race, none had ever been called.
After four days of testimony and argument, Horton denied Leibowitz’s motions to quash the Jackson County indictment and set aside the Morgan County venire. Significantly, however, he also ruled that the jury rolls of both counties contained only the names of whites. A smiling Leibowitz perfunctorily objected to the court’s decision; privately he told friends he was confident no conviction could now withstand the scrutiny of the United States Supreme Court.
Despite Leibowitz’s pleasure at the progress of the trial, reporters had sensed a shift of local mood from geniality to distrust and then to anger. However wellintentioned Morgan County citizens might be, their ultimate loyalty was to preserving the racial status quo. Still buried in the walls of several of the town’s buildings were bullets fired during the Civil War; the entire area had been a center of Ku Klux Klan strength during the Reconstruction era and again in the Klan resurgence of the 1920’s. Leibowitz’s insistence on referring to Negro witnesses as “Mr.” had perplexed the spectators, but when he pressed his demand for Negro jurors, grim hostility appeared on the faces of the overalled farmers. Leibowitz, warned a Black Belt newspaper, had “thrown down the challenge to … white supremacy.”
Judge Horton’s brief remarks to the venire of jurors on Friday afternoon referred obliquely to the rising hostility. “Now, gentlemen,” he said, “under our law when it comes to the courts we know neither black nor white. … It is our duty to mete out even-handed justice. … No other course is open to you“—his voice suddenly became stern and harsh—”and let no one think they can act otherwise.” The judge’s implicit warning ended the open threats which had been heard on Decatur’s streets, but resentment smouldered beneath the surface, a resentment bolstered by the presence of “outside radicals” who had come to observe the proceedings.
The jury was selected in one afternoon. Leibowitz was not altogether satisfied, since the state had used its challenges to exclude younger men who might have had “liberal” ideas, but at least he felt he had managed to keep the most obvious “red-neck” types off the jury.