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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
The prosecution, concerned about the damaging effects of Leibowitz’s questions, re-examined Mrs. Price in order to impress upon the jurors the gravity of the charge. Without the “flutter of an eyelash and in a voice that carried to the furthest corner of the courtroom” (wrote one reporter), she related in the most specific Anglo-Saxon terms the sexual demands made upon her by the defendants. Leibowitz knew the only purpose of the re-examination was to inflame the emotions of the jurors. In a voice shaking with anger he sarcastically asked Mrs. Price: “You are not embarrassed before this huge crowd when you utter these words?” “We object,” exclaimed Knight, while Mrs. Price looked at Leibowitz with such venom that one reporter thought she was going to strike him. Suspecting that Victoria’s fear of the Mann Act had led her to accuse the Negroes, Leibowitz explained that he had only one more question. “I want to ask you if you have ever heard of any single white woman ever being locked up in jail when she is the complaining witness against Negroes in the history of the State of Alabama?” Without waiting for her answer or Knight’s objection, Leibowitz angrily took his seat at the defense table.
The last witness for the state on Monday was Dr. R. R. Bridges, one of the doctors who had examined the girls shortly after the alleged rape. Bridges’ testimony and that of his younger colleague, Dr. M. W. Lynch, had been crucial for the state’s case at Scottsboro. Under cross-examination, however, Leibowitz brought out facts that made the doctor a stronger witness for the defense than for the state. Bridges admitted that less than two hours after the alleged rape both girls were completely composed and calm, with normal pulse and respiration rates, and no pupil dilation. Even though Mrs. Price claimed she had been brutally raped six times, the doctor testified that there was no vaginal bleeding and that he and Dr. Lynch had had great difficulty finding enough semen to make a smear slide. The semen they did find was completely nonmotile. Bridges readily admitted that this was unusual: spermatozoa normally live from twelve hours to two days in the vagina.
The following morning, Attorney General Knight explained to Judge Horton that the state did not intend to call Dr. Lynch, since his testimony would be repetitious. After Horton’s consent, however, a bailiff whispered to the judge that the young doctor urgently wanted to speak to him—in private. The only room available in the crowded building was one of the courthouse restrooms, and there the two men talked. Lynch, visibly unnerved, went straight to the point. Contrary to Knight’s explanation, said Lynch, his testimony would not be a repetition of Dr. Bridges’, because Lynch did not believe the girls had been raped. From the very beginning, said the Scottsboro physician, he was convinced the girls were lying. Even Dr. Bridges had noted at the examination that the vaginal areas of the two women were “not even red.” “My God, Doctor, is this whole thing a horrible mistake?” asked the stunned Horton. “Judge, I looked at both the women and told them they were lying, that they knew they had not been raped,” replied the doctor, “and they just laughed at me.”∗
∗ This account, based upon recent interviews and correspondence with former Judge Horton—and carefully checked by him in manuscript form—has been emphatically denied by Dr. Lynch, who wrote to the author on October 16, 1967, that as “far as I can recall, no such statements were ever made to Judge James E. Horton or anyone else regarding the trial of Haywood Patterson versus Alabama. Of course, it has been 35 years and better since this incident happened; and as far as I can recall, I was never put on the stand as a witness in this case.”
Horton sent for Knight and confronted him with Lynch’s statement. Knight was adamant. It was only the opinion of one doctor, he insisted, and the state was committed to the prosecution of the nine boys.
Judge Horton, now doubting that any rape had occurred, faced a painful dilemma. He could force Dr. Lynch to take the stand or he could himself, by Alabama statute, end the trial. In either case, Lynch—because of his courageous act—would be ruined. In his mind, Horton went over the twelve jurors who sat on his left. He knew more than half of them personally and—in spite of their conventional southern attitude toward Negroes—he believed that the weight of the evidence presented by the defense would convince them of Patterson’s innocence. With many misgivings, he decided to allow the trial to continue.
Before the state rested its case on Tuesday afternoon, Knight called to the stand five additional witnesses. Their testimony was inconclusive, and it became clear that the case would stand or fall on the testimony of Victoria Price.
In planning his defense, Leibowitz realized that normal legal assumptions could not be made at this trial. Usually a defense lawyer has only to prove that there is reasonable doubt of his client’s guilt. In Decatur, Leibowitz knew he would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Patterson was innocent.
His first witness was Dallas Ramsey, a Negro who lived near the hobo jungle in Chattanooga. He testified he had seen and talked with two white girls and two white men on the evening of March 24 and the morning of March 25, 1931. Ramsey picked Mrs. Price from the courtroom as one of the women; from a photograph he identified Ruby Bates. The four had apparently stayed the night in the wooded vagrant’s refuge near his home.