The Scottsboro Boys: Case Synopsis

The Scottsboro Boys is based on an actual rape case in Alabama in 1931 where seven black boys were accused of raping two white girls on an open car on a freight train. The alleged crime occurred on March 25; the boys were arrested that day and arraigned on March 31 on capital charges. On April 6, counsel was appointed and trial immediately began before an all-white jury. All the defendants were convicted and sentenced to death.

On appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, the judgments were affirmed, with its Chief Justice dissenting on the ground that counsel were not given an opportunity to prepare a defense.

The US Supreme Court then granted review and in a landmark ruling in Powell v. Alabama held for the first time that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment includes the right to have counsel appointed in a death case and that that right is meaningless if counsel does not have sufficient time to prepare a defense.

The US Supreme Court then reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial.

The new trial was held in a different county by Judge James Horton. During the retrial one of the alleged victims admitted to fabricating the case. Nevertheless, the all-white jury again found the defendants guilty. A ray of sunshine then briefly appeared in the grim landscape: Judge Horton set aside the verdict and ordered yet another trial. (A year later, Judge Horton lost his bid for reelection.)

The third time, before a third judge, the all-white jury again returned a guilty verdict. The case once again was reviewed by the US Supreme Court. This time, the issue of an all-white jury was addressed. In Norris v. Alabama, a second landmark ruling was issued, that Alabama was systematically preventing blacks from serving on juries.

It was now 1935, and the case once again returned to the trial court, where charges were dropped against many of the defendants. The remaining defendants were convicted, and some served time in prison or escaped.

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