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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
When the actual taking of testimony began the following Monday, ‘the seats were jammed for the first time since the opening day. Although it was cool in the building when the courtroom doors opened at 8:30 A.M. , within an hour the spectators had begun to shed their coats, and by noon courthouse officials were forced to turn on the overhead fans to dispel the oppressive stuffiness caused by constant smoking in the crowded courtroom. Just before 9 A.M. Victoria Price, the older of the two complainants, took the stand. (The other girl, Ruby Bates, was absent; although she had testified at the trials two years before in Scottsboro, state officials said that she had recently disappeared.) Mrs. Price wore a blue straw hat and a black dress with a fichu of white lace at the throat. Her stylish costume was quite unlike the bedraggled outfit she had worn at Scottsboro, and in keeping with her new mien, she restrained her habit of chewing snuff, which at earlier hearings had necessitated frequent spitting. She seemed nervous in the witness chair, crossing and uncrossing her legs and fingering her long necklace of glass beads. When Attorney General Knight began his questioning, however, she spoke in a clear, firm voice that carried to the back of the courtroom.
Mrs. Price began her story from the time she and her friend Ruby boarded the train at Chattanooga to return to their home in Huntsville. Just south of Stevenson, Alabama, she said, about a dozen Negro youths leaped from the top of an adjacent boxcar into the gondola that she and Ruby were sharing with seven white hobos. After a brief scuffle, all but one of the outnumbered white boys were thrown from the train. The only remaining white, Orville Gilley, was forced to watch the brutal assaults- that followed. Thrusting her finger toward Haywood Patterson, Mrs. Price identified him as one of the rapists. Knight asked her if Patterson’s “private parts penetrated your private parts.” “Yes sir, they did,” she replied. Suddenly Knight pulled a torn cotton undergarment from his briefcase, and asked Victoria Price to state whether these were the step-ins she was wearing at the time of the assault. Leibowitz leaped to his feet. “This is the first time in two years any such step-ins have ever been shown” in connection with the case, he objected. “They are here now,” Knight answered, grinning, and tossed them into the lap of one of the bewildered jurors. The courtroom exploded into laughter, and Judge Horton had to gavel for quiet. In less than twenty minutes the Alabama attorney general completed his direct examination and, with a gracious smile toward the defense table, abandoned his star witness to Leibowitz.
The balding lawyer, younger than most spectators had anticipated, exuded confidence. During his career he had reduced even honest witnesses to incoherent confusion, and he was convinced that Victoria Price was lying. Leibowitz had all the skills of a good trial lawyer: an actor’s sense of timing, a flair for the dramatic, and a clear, forceful voice. But his main strength was an almost infallible memory for detail and, above all, for contradictions. “I am not a great lawyer,” he had once said in response to a compliment. “I’m only thorough.” He began his cross-examination gently, almost kindly: “Miss Price … shall I call you Miss Price or Mrs. Price?” “Mrs. Price,” answered the witness sullenly. She looked at her interrogator as though he were a poisonous snake circling her chair.
For more than three hours Leibowitz put her through a grueling cross-examination. First, he sought to discredit her testimony by proving she was a known prostitute and thus unworthy of belief. Second, by confusing her in cross-examination he hoped to convince the jury that she was lying. Finally, he planned to reveal what had really happened during the forty-eight hours preceding the alleged assault.
It was easy enough to discredit Mrs. Price’s claim to be a “southern lady.” In Huntsville, with the nickname of Big Leg Price, she was a well-known streetwalker. Leibowitz introduced arrest and conviction records showing she had been found guilty of “adultery and fornication” on January 26, 1931, with a Hunts- ville married man, L. J. “Jack” Tiller. But Mrs. Price proved unexpectedly difficult to entangle in cross-examination. Using a model of the freight train, Leibowitz tried to illustrate the sequence of events. Mrs. Price adamantly refused to agree that the model looked like the train she had ridden. What were the differences? asked Leibowitz. “That is not the train I was on,” she snapped. “It was bigger, lots bigger, that is a toy.” No amount of cajoling from Leibowitz could force from her an admission that it was a suitable replica.
During the trials in Scottsboro, Mrs. Price had been colorful and inventive in her account of the assault. At Decatur she stuck to a plain, unembroidered story, as lacking in specific details as possible. She and Leibowitz often shouted back and forth at each other, but whenever the attorney uncovered contradictions in her testimony, she would retreat into vagueness: “I can’t remember,” or “I ain’t sure, that has been two years ago.”