Julian Burnside

50 years ago, on 17 July 1948, Haywood Patterson escaped from Kilby prison, Alabama. He ultimately reached Michigan, where he was taken into custody. But the Michigan courts refused to extradite him.

When he escaped from Kilby prison, Haywood Patterson was serving a 75 year sentence for rape. That sentence was the result of his fourth trial on the same charge: Three times he had been convicted and sentenced to death; three times the convictions had been overturned.

Haywood Patterson was the victim of one of America’s most notorious miscarriages of justice. He was one of the Scottsboro Boys.

When he escaped, Haywood Patterson had been in prison for 17 years for a crime which, almost certainly, had not been committed. The conviction of Patterson and four others was the result of perjured evidence coupled with entrenched race-hatred in the deep South of the United States.

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The saga which ended on 17 July 1948 began on 25 March 1931. On that day, two white girls, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, boarded a train in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to return to their homes in Huntsville, Alabama. Nine black boys (aged 13 to 19) were riding on the train, sitting in an open freight car. The boys got into a fight with some white boys. The blacks won, and threw all the white boys off the train other than Orville Gilley. The only serious injury suffered by the white boys was to their pride, and they informed the railway officials that they had been attacked. When the train arrived in Paint Rock, Alabama about 30 minutes later, an angry crowd of whites awaited them and they were arrested.

Like the blacks, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, had been riding the train illegally: like the blacks, they were unemployed vagrants, travelling around in a way common during the depression years. There had obviously been a fight on the train, and they were concerned that they would be charged along with the blacks. To spare themselves that inconvenience, they alleged that the nine blacks had raped them on the freight car. Within 90 minutes of arriving in Paint Rock, they had been medically examined. Meanwhile, the nine black boys had been taken into custody. Four days later, an all-white grand jury was convened in nearby Scottsboro, and all of the Defendants were indicted.

The trials began in Scottsboro on 6 April. They had no worthwhile legal representation. A lawyer named Roddy appeared for them. Patterson recorded the following exchange between Roddy and the Judge:

Judge: You defending these boys?

Roddy: Not exactly. I’m here to join up with any lawyers you name to defend them. Sort of help out.

Judge: Well, you defending them or aren’t you?

Roddy: Well, I’m not defending them, but I wouldn’t like to be sent off the case. I’m not being paid or anything. Just been sent here to sort of take part

Judge: Oh I wouldn’t want to see you out of the case. You can stay.

It did not get better. The trials took two days in total. All defendants were convicted. Eight were sentenced to death. The conviction of one (Roy Wright) was set aside by the trial judge because Wright was only 13 years old. Later, the Alabama Supreme Court quashed the conviction of Eugene Williams because he, too, was a minor.

The case had already come to the attention of the International Labour Defence. It eventually succeeded in having the executions stayed, pending appeals. The case attracted world-wide attention, and eventually the US Supreme Court quashed the convictions on the grounds that the Defendants had no effective legal representation.

Patterson’s second trial began in Decatur, Alabama, on 27 March 1933. This time he was represented by Samuel Liebowitz (one of America’s greatest trial lawyers ever) and Joseph Brodsky. Although the trial judge, Judge James Horton, was scrupulously fair, the jury was made up of whites only, and most of them back-woods farmers. Patterson was convicted and again sentenced to death. However, Judge Horton heard, and allowed, a motion for a new trial. His ruling on the motion summarized the evidence in a way which makes the original conviction appear quite incredible.

The central allegation made by Victoria Price was that the nine Scottsboro Boys had raped her in the freight wagon. Her evidence was that they had hit her on the head with a pistol butt, torn her clothes off and held her down at knife-point, whilst each in turn raped her. Ruby Bates was treated in the same way. The whole incident had occupied less than half an hour. The Defendants had then let Ruby Bates and Victoria Price dress themselves just in time for the train’s arrival in Paint Rock, where they made their allegations.

The freight wagon was loaded with chert, a form of flint. Chert is very sharp and hard. Yet the medical examination revealed no lacerations or bruising of the sort which an assault on sharp rock must certainly produce. It also revealed no evidence of a head injury; no fresh sperm, no bleeding; in short: no evidence consistent with intercourse during the previous 12 hours. The clothing Victoria Price had been wearing showed no signs of tearing, nor any blood or semen.

Not only was there no forensic evidence to support an allegation of rape but, in addition, Victoria Price’s version of events was denied by Ruby Bates. This time Ruby Bates was a witness for the defence. On 5 January 1933, she had written a letter to her boyfriend saying, in part: “…[it] is a goddam lie about those Negroes jazzing me those policemen made me tell a lie … i was drunk at the time and did not know what i was doing i know it was wrong too let those Negroes die on account of me i hope you will believe me because it is gods truth i hope you will believe me i was jazzed but those white boys jazzed me i wish those Negroes are not Burnt on account of me it is those white boys fault that is my statement, and that is all I know I hope you tell the law hope you will answer. …” (all spelling and punctuation as in the original letter).

Ruby Bates gave evidence for the defence at Haywood Patterson’s second trial. Orvill Gilley, the only white who could have witnessed the events if they occurred, was not called. In allowing the motion for a retrial, Judge Horton said: “… The testimony of the Prosecutrix in this case is not only uncorroborated, but it also bears on its face indications of improbability and is contradicted by other evidence, and in addition thereto the evidence greatly preponderates in favour of the defendant. …” Judge Horton was thereafter shunned by the Alabama legal community, and failed in his bid for re-election to judicial office.

Patterson was tried a third time. Judge William Callahan showed none of Judge Horton’s fairness. Patterson was convicted and, for a third time, was sentenced to death. However, it emerged that in order to overcome the unexplained absence of blacks on the jury roll, a Court official had added 7 fictitious names to the end of the roll. This piece of clumsy deception, coupled with evidence of the systematic exclusion of blacks from jury service in Alabama, persuaded the US Supreme Court to overturn the conviction.

The Supreme Court’s ruling had criticised not only the trial, but also the indictment, on the grounds that blacks had been excluded from the grand jury and the trial jury. On 1 May 1935, Victoria Price swore new warrants of complaint. On 13 November, a grand jury returned new indictments against all nine of the Scottsboro Boys. Although there was one black on the grand jury, a 2/3rds majority was sufficient to return a true bill. Patterson’s fourth trial, again before Judge Callahan, began on 20 January, 1936. The trial took 3 days, and he was convicted again. Judge Callahan sentenced Patterson to 75 years imprisonment.

Alabama law provided that a person may not be convicted of rape on the uncorroborated evidence of the prosecutrix if her evidence “bears on its face indications of unreliability or improbability”. Notwithstanding the difficulties inherent in Victoria Price’s evidence, Judge Callahan’s charge to the jury included the proposition that “… the law would authorize conviction on Victoria Prices’s evidence alone …” On 14 June 1937, the Supreme Court of Alabama rejected Patterson’s appeal.

For the other Scottsboro Boys, fate followed swiftly. On 15 July, Clarence Norris was convicted, and sentenced to death. On 22 July, Andy Wright was convicted and sentenced to 99 years. On 24 July, Charles Weems was convicted and sentenced to 75 years. The same day, Ozie Powell pleaded guilty to having assaulted a guard with a knife with intent to murder. He was sentenced to 25 years, and the rape charge against him was dropped.

On the same day, the State of Alabama announced that the charges against the remaining four were to be dropped. They had all spent six and a half years in prison.

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After Haywood Patterson’s extradition was refused, he remained at liberty in Michigan for another 3 years until he was convicted of manslaughter. He died in prison.

In 1976, the only surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys, Clarence Norris, received a full pardon from the Governor of Alabama. Some governments find it possible, eventually, to say they are sorry.