The Scottsboro pardon: Historic defendants face a wait in overburdened system
by Tim Lockette
Oct 08, 2013 | 4284 views |  0 comments | 51 51 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — First the activists declared them innocent. Then the historians. And eventually, even the governor and the legislature of Alabama said that nine black teens couldn't possibly have had a fair trial when they were accused of rape back in 1931.

But to get an official pardon from the state, the Scottsboro Boys will have to wait their turn in Alabama’s backlogged justice system.

"Once we've received the application, the hearing will come 30 to 60 days out from that date," said Eddie Cook, assistant director of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

For months, Cook and other board officials have been expecting a petition to pardon the Scottsboro Boys — the teens whose 82-year-old court case branded Alabama in the public eye as a place where no black man could get a fair trial.

The nine, ranging in age from 13 to 19, were accused of raping two white women on a train in Jackson County in March 1931. Their trial brought instant criticism from many outside Alabama — partly because of the racially-charged atmosphere in Jackson County and partly because of the defendants' lack of access to lawyers.

Eight would initially be convicted. Appeals and re-trials would go on for years. Only one of the Scottsboro Boys, Clarence Norris, received a pardon in his lifetime.

The Alabama Legislature cleared the way for exoneration for the rest earlier this year, when it passed a law allowing people to be pardoned posthumously. Applicable only to cases more than 80 years old — and cases in which race was a factor in wrongful conviction, the bill was named after the Scottsboro Boys. When Gov. Robert Bentley signed the bill, many declared the Scottsboro Boys exonerated.

But in Alabama, true pardon power has been delegated to Pardons and Paroles, a three-man board which meets three days a week to hear petitions from the more than 25,000 inmates in the state's prisons.

Advocates for the Scottsboro Boys say the petition for their pardon was put in the mail on Friday.

"I felt like I was standing on the shoulders of giants," said John Miller, assistant director of the New College at the University of Alabama. He noted that lawyers such as famed civil rights lawyer Fred Gray and Milton Davis, the state's first black assistant attorney general, laid much of the groundwork for the long-awaited petition.

Officials at the Scottsboro Boys Museum in Jackson County asked Miller, a lawyer, to compile the petition for pardon. It came out to 107 pages, Miller said.

"The argument is that there was racial prejudice because the threat of mob violence made it impossible for the jury to render a fair verdict," Miller said.

Miller declined to provide the document to The Star on Monday, saying he wouldn't release it until the board acknowledged receipt. Miller sent it by courier Friday, he said, and emailed a version as well.

Late Monday afternoon, officials of the board said the hard copy of the petition hadn't been delivered yet. The board doesn't have electronic filing, Cook said.

The board has a three-year backlog of pardons, Cook explained. One reason for the wait is the state law demanding that every victim be found and notified before a convict can get a pardon or parole hearing — even if the crime happened 40 years ago, or the defendant left the state, or remarried and changed names multiple times.

"It's a colossal process for our staff, which is mostly clerical, and is not the best paid in the state," he said.

Cook said the Scottsboro case will move faster because all the parties in it are no longer living — though it may take as much as two months to hold the hearing.

Cook said that if he had the 107-page pardon application in hand, he couldn't release it to The Star. Petitions before the board are privileged and can't be acquired even by subpoena, he said. By law, he said, the board must discuss all petitions in executive session — out of the hearing of the public — even in the Scottsboro case, in which all the defendants are now dead.

Miller said he and other advocates for the Scottsboro Boys had no intention of pressuring the board into a quicker hearing.

"We're talking about an overworked board in an underfunded judicial system," Miller said.

Alabama's prison system is vastly overcrowded, with more than 25,000 prisoners in prisons built for 13,000. Counting parole petitions alone, the Board of Pardons and Paroles hears about 90 cases a day.

By most accounts, false convictions of black defendants were rampant in early 20th century Alabama, but so far Miller said he hasn't heard from anyone seeking a pardon for a person convicted at the time.

Despite the added workload, Cook said the board didn't mind taking up the Scottsboro case.

"It's not burdensome," he said. "The way the law was drafted, in a case where there's blatant evidence of racial bias, a posthumous pardon is possible. When a case meets those criteria, it should be addressed."

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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