The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles issued a long-overdue pardon to three now-deceased boys wrongly convicted of raping white girls in a racially tinged case that twice went to the U.S. Supreme Court and back.
Three of the nine accused known as the “Scottsboro Boys” were pardoned by the board, after the state changed the law to allow posthumous pardons of convictions that are at least 80 years old. The boys were charged with raping two white girls on a train in 1931, after a fight broke out between whites and blacks on the train. After several of the boys had been convicted and sentenced to death with no evidence other than the testimony of the two girls, one of them, Ruby Bates, came forward and recanted her testimony, saying that she and her friend had never been raped. But Bates then became a target of attacks and was driven out of the community.
Twice, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the boys’ convictions, the first time, issuing a landmark decision on the right to effective assistance of counsel, and the second time invalidating a trial that included no black jurors. Charges were eventually dropped against five of the boys, and another was pardoned before his death in 1976. But the three remaining boys, Haywood Patterson, Charlie Weems, and Andy Wright, were convicted yet again, although their sentences were reduced to effective terms of life in prison. Alabama has now pardoned the three whose convictions remained until their deaths, Haywood Patterson, Charlie Weems, and Andy Wright.
“This is a different state than it was 80 years ago, and thank God for that,” said Republican state senator Arthur Orr, who sponsored the legislation that allowed the pardons. But evidence suggests that living defendants are still not seeing justice under Alabama’s criminal justice system. In a dissent issued earlier this week, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor blasted Alabama’s “judicial override” system that allows elected judges who campaign by boasting about their execution rate to turn prison sentences into death sentences. A study on the practice found that, while Alabama judges have the option to both revoke or impose death sentences, they turned sentences from life to death 92 percent of the time. And in Texas, a man who was sentenced after testimony by a psychologist that blacks are more dangerous remains on death row after several appeals.