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Two white females, Victoria Price, age 21, and Ruby Bates, age 17, both mill workers, hopped on a train to hitch a ride from Chattanooga to Huntsville, Alabama, early in the morning of March 25, 1931. On board with them were approximately twenty black teenage boys and young men who were also hitching rides on the train. A group of white boys of about the same age were in the train car as well.
When the train stopped, the group of white males jumped off, though the reasons for this are disputed. After jumping off the train, they reported to the nearby train stationmaster that two women and a group of black men were riding on the train, and the train was then stopped in Paint Rock. Once the train stopped, 16-year-old Willie Roberson and eight other young black men (referred to as the “Scottsboro Boys”) found aboard the train were arrested. Victoria Price and Ruby Bates were transported by police and interviewed. Price and Bates claimed the black teens forced the white teens to jump from the train and then proceeded to attack and rape the two of them.
The nine Scottsboro Boys were each charged with rape. Several weeks after their arrest, in early April 1931, the nine were divided into four groups for trial. It is estimated that a crowd of 8,000 to 10,000 spectators gathered in small Scottsboro for the trials, with armed soldiers on hand to keep the crowds at bay. The primary evidence against the defendants was the testimony of Price and Bates.
Willie Roberson was tried together with several of the other Scottsboro Boys, all of whom were found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. Within a span of three days, eight of the Scottsboro Boys, all under age 21, had been convicted and sentenced to death, with their execution date set for July 10, 1931. The trial of the ninth boy –14-year-old Roy Wright – ended in a mistrial. He was never tried again, but he remained in jail until the charges against him were dropped in 1937.
Both the International Labor Defense, a group affiliated with the Communist party, and the NAACP, quickly backed the cause of the Scottsboro Boys. While their appeal was pending in court, they received a stay of their executions. In January 1932, the NAACP withdrew from the case because of the great tension that had developed between the NAACP and the ILD as each group attempted to gain control of the representation and legal strategy of the Scottsboro Boys.
Also in January 1932, accuser Ruby Bates wrote a letter in which she denied that the Scottsboro Boys had raped her. Over the course of the following year, Bates formally recanted her rape and assault claims in court, admitting that the story in which she accused the Scottsboro Boys of these crimes was completely false.
The appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court in November 1932. The Court reversed the convictions of the Scottsboro Boys based on its determination that the defendants had been deprived of their constitutional right to due process when they were not provided adequate legal representation at their trials.
In July 1937, the charges against Willie Roberson, Olen Montgomery, Ozie Powell and Eugene Williams (as well as Roy Wright) were finally dismissed. The State Attorney announced that the prosecution was “convinced they were not guilty.” This group was released from prison, except for Powell, who remained incarcerated on charges relating to an altercation with a prison guard.
The other four Scottsboro Boys – Clarence Norris, Andy Wright, Charlie Weems and Haywood Patterson – remained in prison, having been labeled by the prosecution as the ringleaders of the alleged assault on Bates and Price. Three of them were paroled in 1943 and 1944, and the fourth escaped from prison in the 1940s.
In 1976, Clarence Norris was pardoned by the Alabama Governor George Wallace, formally exonerating him. He was the only one of the Scottsboro Boys known to be alive by that time. In November 2013, more than eighty years after the conviction of the Scottsboro Boys, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles granted posthumous pardons to Charlie Weems, Andy Wright and Haywood Patterson in order to formally exonerate them as well.
None of the Scottsboro Boys received compensation for their wrongful convictions and incarcerations.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.