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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
As Wright’s anti-Semitic tirade poured out, Leibowitz sat at the defense table with a look of stunned disbelief. Attorney General Knight stared fixedly at the floor, his face flushed with embarrassment. The faces of several jurors betrayed their excitement. Horton sharply reprimanded the solicitor, but Wright went tumbling on, almost lost in his own rhetorical fervor. He turned and pointed a finger at the counsel table where Leibowitz and Brodsky sat. “Show them,” he paused for effect, “show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” Leibowitz leaped to his feet, slamming his hand on the defense table. “I move for a mistrial,” he said. “I submit a conviction in this case won’t be worth a pinch of snuff in view of what this man just said.” Horton scolded Wright for his “improper statements” but refused to end the trial.
Leibowitz, facing the unenviable task of restoring calm to the feverish courtroom, began his closing remarks late in the afternoon. “Let us assume the prosecution is prejudiced,” he began. “Let us assume the defense is also prejudiced. Let us assume both sides are trying to prove their points.” He looked squarely into the face of each juror. “It is the sworn duty of each of you,” he told them, to convict only upon “hard evidence,” not emotion. He summarized the four days of testimony and emphasized what several state officials were admitting privately: that the prosecution’s case rested solely on the testimony of Victoria Price. And her story, he said, was the “foul, contemptible, outrageous lie … [of] an abandoned, brazen woman.”
The defense attorney continued his summation the next morning. By ten o’clock his voice had begun to crack with fatigue. Several times he took a few sips of water, pausing as if to gather his strength. He recalled Wade Wright’s tirade, referring to it as a “hangman’s speech.” “What is it but an appeal to prejudice, to sectionalism, to bigotry?” Wright, he maintained, was simply saying: “Come on, boys! We can lick this Jew from New York!” The jury’s verdict, he concluded, would show whether Alabamians would give even this “poor scrap of colored humanity” a “fair, square deal.”
When the weary Leibowitz took his seat, Attorney General Knight began the final arguments for the state. In an obvious reference to Wright’s tirade, he shouted: “I do not want a verdict based on racial prejudice or a religious creed. I want a verdict on the merits of this case.” Knight exhorted the jurors to stand up for Alabama; he expressed his confidence that they were not “cowards.” Referring scornfully to the almost forgotten Patterson as “that thing,” he told the jury in a tone of unveiled contempt: “If you acquit this Negro, put a garland of roses around his neck, give him a supper, and send him to New York City.” There, he said, “Dr. Harry Fosdick [will] dress him up in a high hat and morning coat, gray-striped trousers, and spats.” Only one verdict was possible: death in the electric chair.
Horton delivered his charge to the jury before noon. He began with a pointed reference to the state’s star witness, Victoria Price. The law was designed to protect all classes of people, he said, but the law also had a “stern duty to perform when women of the underworld come before it.” It was the obligation of the jury, in evaluating Mrs. Price’s testimony, to weigh her background of promiscuity and prostitution. In an effort to calm the emotionally charged courtroom, the judge concluded with a plea for the jury to put aside extraneous matters. “We are not trying lawyers,” he said. “We are not trying state lines. We are not trying whether the defendant is black or white.” The only duty of the jury was to ascertain whether there was a reasonable doubt about the guilt of Haywood Patterson. If there was a reasonable doubt, he emphasized, then they should return a verdict of not guilty. Horton, visibly exhausted from the wearing two-week trial, gave the case to the jury just before one o’clock.
The courtroom was soon empty except for lawyers and newspapermen. Patterson and the other Scottsboro boys sat in their cells and played cards or sang gospel songs to pass the time. When the jury still had not reached a decision at 11:30 P.M. , Horton ordered them locked up for the night, and told them to resume their deliberations the following morning, Sunday, at 8:30 A.M.
They reached a verdict at 10 A.M. Leibowitz and Brodsky hurried over to the courthouse. There they found Patterson—guarded by two militiamen- sprawled in a chair and smoking a cigarette. Across the room, Knight sat at the prosecution table, the muscles of his face twitching nervously. When Judge Horton arrived at 11 A.M. , he called for the jury; the court stenographer opened his notebook to take down the last words of the trial. As the jurors filed in they were still laughing from a joke; they became solemn when they saw the tense courtroom.