Last Of The Scottsboro Boys Pardoned

After 80 years, the last of the Scottsboro Boys, African-American men wrongfully convicted of the rapes of two white women, were pardoned for a crime they never committed:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama’s parole board wrote a new ending for the infamous “Scottsboro Boys” rape case Thursday by approving posthumous pardons more than 80 years after the arrests.

The board made the unanimous decision during a hearing in Montgomery for three black men whose convictions were never overturned in a case that came to symbolize racial injustice in the Deep South in the 1930s.

“Today, the Scottsboro Boys have finally received justice,” Gov. Robert Bentley said.

Nine black males were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in northeast Alabama in 1931. The men were convicted by all-white juries, and all but the youngest defendant was sentenced to death.

The state senator who got a law enacted to permit posthumous pardons said the Scottsboro Boys’ lives were ruined by a justice system that ignored evidence, and that it was time to right a wrong.

“It is a promising reminder of how far we have come as a state since those regretful days in our past,” Republican Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur said.

The founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum in Scottsboro, Shelia Washington, said the pardons “give the history books a new ending — not guilty.”

The Scottsboro Boys case became a symbol of the tragedies wrought by racial injustice. Their appeals resulted in U.S. Supreme Court rulings that criminal defendants are entitled to effective counsel and that blacks can’t be systematically excluded from criminal juries.

The case inspired songs, books and films. A Broadway musical was staged in 2010, the same year a museum dedicated to the case opened in Scottsboro.

Five of the men’s convictions were overturned in 1937 after one of the alleged victims recanted her story. One defendant, Clarence Norris, received a pardon before his death in 1976. At the time, he was the only Scottsboro Boy known to be alive. Nothing was done for the others because state law did not permit posthumous pardons.

In April, the Alabama Legislature passed Orr’s bill to allow the parole board to issue posthumous pardons for old cases where the convictions involved racial discrimination.

The three Scottsboro Boys considered by the parole board on Thursday were Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems and Andy Wright.

The board said the other five — Olen Montgomery, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams and Roy Wright — weren’t eligible under the new law because their convictions were overturned on appeal and the charges dropped.

Better late than never, I suppose.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, Race and Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    “Today, the Scottsboro Boys have finally received justice,” Gov. Robert Bentley said.

    Gov. Bentley? Methinks you have a different definition of “justice” than I.

  2. Franklin says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Yup, that’s the quote that caught my eye as well. Perhaps better wording might say something like, “we have finally acknowledged the injustice officially.”

  3. CSK says:

    Help me with this. Doesn’t a pardon imply guilt? Shouldn’t the men be officially exonerated?

  4. Pinky says:

    You don’t give history books a new ending. They tell the same story of injustice they always did. But maybe in a new section about Twenty-First Century Voter Dissatisfaction there will be an entry about legislatures wasting their time trying to get into history books.

  5. CSK says:

    Okay, I just looked it up. A pardon forgives a person for having committed a criminal offense, and releases him or her from punishment. It’s clemency.

    I don’t, therefore, regard a pardon as acceptable in this case, because it means that the men are being forgiven for the commission of a crime. But they didn’t commit the crime of which they were accused.

    I repeat: Exonerate, don’t pardon. How can you be forgiven for something you didn’t do?

  6. grumpy realist says:

    Well, at least they got around to it quicker than the Vatican has with regards for its injustices. The Vatican finally admitted they were wrong to burn Giordano Bruno at the stake only a few years ago.

  7. rudderpedals says:

    @CSK: Good catch. Exoneration is the appropriate fix.

  8. Barry says:

    I agree – f*ck the pardons (and f*ck the government of Alabama; it’s one of those which looks at other lousy states, and takes their misdeeds as things to emulate).

  9. anjin-san says:

    legislatures wasting their time trying to get into history books.

    Damn straight. They should be focused on the important things, like moving us further towards failed state status.

  10. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @CSK: I suspect that it’s because a governor has the power to pardon, but only a court can overturn a conviction and declare innocence. And that’s a lot of work for, let’s be blunt, no real gain.

  11. CSK says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    It’s not that much work. State SJCs overturn convictions and vacate sentences (when necessary) fairly often. In this case, some sort of official declaration of exoneration seems necessary, because, again, a pardon implies guilt, and there appears to have been no guilt in this case.

    Patricia Hearst, for example, was pardoned for participating in a bank robbery. She wasn’t found innocent of participating in the bank robbery. (Whether you believe she was in the bank under duress, or of her own free will, is a separate issue.) There is a very strong distinction to be made between an exoneration and a pardon, and I believe that it’s a distinction that should be maintained.

  12. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @CSK: It would take a bit more time and effort for prosecutors and courts to do the exoneration, and that would take up time they could be dealing with current crimes and whatnot. A governor’s pardon is a lot simpler and quicker.

    It’s common knowledge now that they were innocent; this puts an official imprimatur on that.