Legal History

3 men convicted in infamous 'Scottsboro Boys' case are pardoned by Alabama parole board

Closing a chapter in a criminal case that is considered symbolic of racial injustice in the early decades of the 20th Century, the Alabama parole board Thursday granted posthumous pardons to three black men who were convicted by all-white juries of a rape that apparently never occurred in a case involving two white women as claimed victims.

Nine black men were originally convicted within a few weeks of their arrest and jailing in Scottsboro in 1931, and all but one were sentenced to death. Successful appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, involving landmark rulings on the right to legal representation and the racial composition of juries, were followed by retrials of some of the defendants. Charges against five of the men were dropped by the state in 1937, and a sixth defendant was pardoned before he died in 1976 by then-Gov. George Wallace. Today’s action pardoned the remaining three defendants, Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems and Andy Wright, according to the Associated Press and the Montgomery Advertiser.

The unanimous action by the parole board followed a brief hearing in Montgomery and a special law enacted earlier this year by the state legislature with the so-called Scottsboro Boys case in mind. It allows posthumous pardons of individuals with felony convictions in cases that are at least 75 years old.

One of the three pardoned men died in prison of cancer in 1952, and the other two were eventually released.

A group of academics petitioned the parole board seeking the pardons in October, with the support of judges and district attorneys in the jurisdiction where the trials took place, as an earlier Advertiser article reported.

“You can’t undo a wrong in history, but you can take a subsequent action to show that it’s the time to do the right thing,” said professor John Miller of the University of Alabama, who was among the petitioners. “It sends a message, hopefully, to other states where convictions like this have occurred that there is a public policy value associated with admitting the justice system is not always perfect. There is a judicial interest in attempting to do the right thing, when past mistakes exist.”

A page on the famous trials website of the University of Missouri-Kansas City provides a detailed account of the Scottsboro Boys case. It is authored by law professor Douglas O. Linder.

See also:

ABA Journal: “March 25, 1931: The saga of the Scottsboro Boys begins”

Updated at 12:50 p.m. to link to prior ABA Journal article.

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