This Day in History: 1931-03-25

In a gross miscarriage of justice typical of that era and especially in that region, the “Scottsboro Boys” — nine African American teenagers, ages 12-18 — are falsely accused, arrested, and charged with raping two white women. The arrests set off a cascading set of injustices. It is commonly cited as an example of a miscarriage of justice in the United States legal system. The case was first heard in Scottsboro, Alabama, in three rushed trials, in which the defendants received poor legal representation. All but 13-year-old Roy Wright were convicted of rape and sentenced to death (the common sentence in Alabama at the time for black men convicted of raping white women), even though there was no medical evidence to suggest that they had committed such a crime. The cases were twice appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which led to landmark decisions on the conduct of trials. In Powell v. Alabama (1932), it ordered new trials. During the retrials, one of the alleged victims admitted to fabricating the rape story and asserted that none of the Scottsboro Boys touched either of the white women. The jury found the defendants guilty, but the judge set aside the verdict and granted a new trial. The judge was replaced and the case tried under a judge who ruled frequently against the defense, and the third jury returned a guilty verdict. The case was sent to the US Supreme Court on appeal. It ruled that African-Americans had to be included on juries, and ordered retrials. Charges were finally dropped for four of the nine defendants. Sentences for the rest ranged from 75 years to death. All but two served prison sentences; all were released or escaped by 1946. Two escaped, were later charged with other crimes, convicted, and sent back to prison. Learn more.