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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
George W. Chamlee, a prominent white Chattanooga attorney, took the stand next. He told the jury he had made dozens of personal inquiries and examined city directories in an effort to locate Mrs. Price’s “boardinghouse friend,” Gallic Brochie. He was convinced, he said, that Mrs. Brochie was a figment of Victoria’s imagination. No woman by that name had lived in Chattanooga between 1930 and 1933.
Then Leibowitz took a calculated risk. One by one he put six of the Scottsboro boys on the stand. The jury, he knew, would surely discount their insistence that they were innocent; and, if they made an unfavorable impression, Patterson’s conviction would be assured. But Leibowitz had to dispel the state’s image of the youths as malevolent conspirators acting coldly and methodically to throw the white boys from the train and then rape the two defenseless white girls.
The first two boys who testified were tragic representatives of a society’s deprivation and neglect. Homeless, unemployed, illiterate, they had wandered across the South since their early teens. Willie Roberson, short and stocky and with a wild shock of hair, sat quietly in the courtroom with a vacuous stare. Syphilitic since birth, he spoke with a severe speech impediment. At the time of his arrest, he was in great pain from open venereal sores, and walked with a cane. (Four years later a psychiatric examination disclosed a mental age of nine and an intelligence quotient of sixty-four.) Olen Montgomery was blind in his left eye; with his right he could see “good enough not to get hurt, that is all.” Yet Victoria Price had identified them “positively” as two of the defendants who had run across the top of a moving boxcar, leaped into the gondola where she sat, fought a pitched battle with the white boys, and then brutally raped her. Montgomery and Roberson told the courtroom they had been riding back toward the rear of the train and had not even known of the disturbance until they were arrested at Paint Rock.
On the witness stand Ozie Powell, Eugene Williams, Andrew Wright, and Haywood Patterson readily admitted participating in the fight. Williams and Patterson, who were travelling with the two Wright brothers (Andy and his twelve-year-old brother, Leroy), explained that somewhere between Chattanooga and Stevenson several whites had begun throwing rocks at them and shouting, “Black son-of-a-bitches.” Patterson said that he had rounded up the other Negroes who were hitching on the train to “have it out.” Most of the white youths leaped from the gondola before actually being hit. After the fight, the victorious blacks scattered across the train. Unanimously the Scottsboro boys insisted they had not even seen, let alone molested, the two white girls. Patterson in particular, tall, black, and ostentatiously unservile, held his own during Knight’s stormy questioning. When the Attorney General made some reference to Patterson’s having been tried at Scottsboro, he was bluntly corrected. “I was framed at Scottsboro,” declared the young Negro. Knight, flushed with anger, demanded, “Who told you to say you were framed?” Patterson retorted: “I told myself to say it.”
It is doubtful whether the testimony of the Scottsboro boys had any effect, one way or the other, on the deliberations of the jurors, for it was Leibowitz’s scathing cross-examination of Mrs. Price that preoccupied Alabamians. Anyone “possessed of that old Southern chivalry,” said the Sylacauga News , could not read of the “brutal” harassment of Mrs. Price without “reaching for his gun while his blood boils to the nth degree.” Within hours after Victoria stepped from the witness stand, reporters overheard angry threats on the streets of Decatur. On Wednesday, Judge Horton learned that a “mass indignation rally” had been held the night before in the local Masonic hall. Several of the two hundred men at the meeting bluntly demanded that the “New York Jew lawyers” be tarred, feathered, and ridden out of Decatur on a rail. For the Scottsboro boys, the prescription was summary justice from the nearest tree.
A grim-faced Judge Horton ordered the jury removed from the courtroom, and then, in a voice betraying deep emotion, he told the spectators that the guilt or innocence of Haywood Patterson and his fellows was for the jury alone to decide. He wanted to make it absolutely clear, he said, that the court intended to protect the prisoners and their attorneys. “I say this much, that the man who would engage in anything that would cause the death of any of these prisoners is a murderer; he is not only a murderer, but a cowardly murderer.” For the first time in the trial Horton raised his voice. Anyone who attempted to take the lives of the prisoners “may expect that his own life be forfeited,” he sternly told the silent courtroom. “I believe I am as gentle as any man … I don’t believe I would harm anyone wrongfully.” But he added, emphasizing every word, that there would be no compromise with mob violence. “Now, gentlemen, I have spoken … harsh words, but every word I say is true and I hope we will have no more of any such conduct. Let the jury return.”
Horton’s stern warning ended the open threats of violence. But according to reporters, it also seemed to intensify the community’s bitter hostility.