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Posthumous pardons in Scottsboro Boys rape cases

Posted at 6:00 AM, Nov 23, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-21 16:48:38-05

(CNN) — For the Scottsboro Boys, justice delayed may be justice denied, but for some observers, it’s still sweet.

A three-person panel of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to issue posthumous pardons Thursday to the three Scottsboro Boys who had neither already received a pardon nor had their charges overturned, a state official said.

Thursday’s pardons “remedied a wrongdoing of social and racial injustice,” said Eddie Cook, assistant director for the board, in an interview with CNN.

The pardons were issued to Charles Weems, John Andy Wright and Haywood Patterson, the last of the nine who had been accused in the 1931 rape case, said Cook.

“It has taken 82 years to clear the names of the Scottsboro Boys,” said Sheila Washington, founder and director of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center. “And today it happened.”

In the case, nine African-American males — ages 12 to 19 — were accused of raping two white females on a train in Alabama, said Washington.

It was during the Great Depression, and they had hopped aboard boxcars en route to Memphis to seek work, she said.

Also on the train was a group of white males who got into a fight with the blacks and were thrown off, she said.

The whites went to the police, who stopped the train in the town of Paint Rock, outside Scottsboro. Among those who were aboard the train were the two white females — one of them 17, the other 21, she said.

The older of the two had already had a brush with the law and, under the terms of her release, was not supposed to cross state lines, Washington said.

“She knew if she got caught, she’d have to go to prison,” she said.

So, when the sheriff asked them about why they were on the train, the woman asked him if he was going to arrest her “after what they did to us,” Washington said.

“He said, ‘What did they do?’ She said, ‘They raped us.'”

The accusers then randomly picked from the train the nine young blacks who became known as the Scottsboro Boys, she said. They underwent a series of trials in Scottsboro and Decatur and were found guilty each time.

All-white juries sentenced all but the youngest to death.

“A judge declared a mistrial in the last case, which saved their lives,” said Washington, who noted that they all wound up serving sentences that stretched for years.

Alabama dropped rape charges against five of the defendants, and the sixth, Clarence Norris, received a pardon from Gov. George Wallace in 1976, she said.

The trials resulted in two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions — one requiring that defendants be tried by juries of their peers, meaning blacks in their cases; the other requiring that indigent defendants receive competent counsel.

The three men’s relatives had been invited to attend Thursday’s hearing, but none did so, Cook said.

Attendees at Thursday’s event included Arthur Orr, a Republican state senator who sponsored Act 2013-081, which passed this year giving the board the authority to grant posthumous pardons for convictions that occurred at least 75 years prior.

Also in attendance was a representative of Gov. Robert Bentley and several university professors, all of whom supported the bill.