Thursday, November 12, 2009

'Scottsboro: An American Tragedy'

Last night, I watched Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, a PBS documentary about the story of nine black youths (ranging in age from 13 to 19) who were convicted of raping two white women on very poor evidence in 1931. Eight of the nine were sentenced to death after very short trials. (The ninth, Roy Wright -- age 13 at the time, ends in a hung jury with 11 votes for a death sentence and one vote for life imprisonment.)

My criminal procedure professor mentioned this movie while studying the Supreme Court case Powell v. Alabama which was one of several cases that came from this situation. Powell established the principle that due process of law requires indigent defendants to be provided counsel in capital cases, if requested. What we didn't study was what happened after the Supreme Court case.

The defendants were retried in a series of court cases in Alabama. The Communist Party in America takes special interest in the case and hires Samuel Leibowitz, one of the most successful criminal defense lawyers in the US, to represent the defendants. Despite poor evidence and one of the women recanting her story, an Alabama jury again finds Haywood Patterson (the first of the nine to be retried) guilty and given the death sentence. Judge James Horton, one of the few heroes in the story, suspends the sentence on a motion for a new trial and then postpones the other trials. (Which costs him his future political career.)

Eventually, after six years in prison, charges are dropped against four of the defendants. The other five are found guilty and either sentenced to death (Clarence Norris) or receive prison terms ranging from 20 to 99 years. Eventually, the governor of Alabama commutes the death sentence of Norris to life in prison. Of the remaining five, Weems is released on parole in 1938, Wright and Norris in 1944 (both violate parole and return to prison for several years), and Powell in 1946. Patterson, who slit the throat of a prison guard, eventually escapes from prison in 1948.

According to the documentary, of all the defendants, only Clarence Norris goes on to 'make a life for himself'. He is finally pardoned by Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1976, being the only survivor of the Scottsboro Boys. I wish I could find a YouTube clip of his tearful statement saying that there should be eight other men there with him to receive the apology and declaration of innocence. Norris was the last survivor and died in 1989 at age 76.

As the name of the documentary says, this story represents a true American tragedy in the way the trials were conducted and the lack of justice for the nine defendants. The more I learn about criminal procedure, the more alarmed I become at the state of the American criminal justice system -- particularly as it relates to indigent defendants. The system is underfunded, has less oversight than many might be aware of, and many abuses by authorities have very little review. I am still shocked by the statistic that over 1% of American adults are currently in prison (or about 1 in 50 adult males), but am beginning to get a better understanding of how this situation came to be. This is another American tragedy of drastic proportions.

I highly recommend Scottsboro: An American Tragedy. Having lived in Fort Payne, Alabama for five months while working for Westinghouse, the setting of this story is very real to me. I used to drive through Scottsboro every couple weeks on my way to Huntsville, where I was a volunteer SCUBA diver for the US Space & Rocket Center. (I'd dive in a tank with a mock-up of the Space Shuttle bay and do demonstrations of what it's like to be weightless in space.) It is a physically beautiful part of the country, but an area that still struggles with deep racial tensions. (The KKK marched on town while I was living there -- both shocking and depressing me.) I want to believe these attitudes are changing, but it is happening at far too slow a pace.

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thinking said...

What a tragedy. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

Clint D said...

Brian, what are your thoughts on imprisonment in general? It seems like incarceration is a fairly recent invention, with jails in the past being used only to store people up for trial. Then the sentences were either death or restitution.

I'm of the opinion that jail makes no sense, but is a result of modern society's inability to acknowledge, and take seriously, guilt and crime and the ramifications of such.

If punishment included restitution or death, wouldn't crime be drastically reduced and victims receive much more justice?

Anonymous said...

I visited the Scottsboro Boys Museum, wow, it is done very well.The author of the book Scottsboro, An American Tragedy was the main speaker for the 80th Commemoration of the arrest of the boys. The museum is an old church built by former slaves and Liebowitz attended a prayer vigil for the boys there.The musical is traveling. Look for it on the west coast next spring.