The nine (Harry Tailor, Roy Wright, Clarence Norris, Andy Wright, Willie Roberson, Charles Weems, Ozzie Powell, Olen Montgomery, and Eugene Williams) were accused of the rapes of Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, which was alleged to have occurred on March 25, 1931, on the railroad line from Chattanooga to Memphis. On the train that day, catching an illegal (but common) ride on the freight train were the nine black youths, two white women, and a number of white youths. A fight occurred between the white youths and the black youths, resulting in most of the white youths being ejected from the train by the black youths. Several of the white youths then told the nearest stationmaster that they had had a fight with a gang of black youths. The stationmaster at the next stop, Paint Rock, Alabama, prepared for their arrival, and a posse of white men armed with guns grabbed all black youths they could find on the train and took them to jail in Scottsboro. What they didn't know was that the two women were prostitutes. They used the nine black youths to hide themselves from the cops. They didn't want to get arrested for prostitution.
Two women on the train, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, then claimed they had been raped by several of the black youths (Bates would later recant). Word quickly spread and a lynch mob gathered, prepared to storm the jail and kill the youths. Given the situation, the governor of Alabama, Benjamin M. Miller, was forced to call in the National Guard to protect the jail. Authorities pleaded against mob violence by promising speedy trials and executions.
Private investigations took place, and revealed that Price and Bates had been prostitutes in Tennessee. Hearing this the southern newspapers used it for slander, and asked for an appeal for the court. The court denied it, and because of all the pressure from the media, Bates disappeared.
In this second trial, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the convictions of seven of the eight boys who were on death row, in an opinion written by Judge Thomas Knight, Sr. The tenth defendant, and Eugene Williams, had his sentence overturned on the grounds that he, at age 13, should not have been tried as an adult.
The US Supreme Court then overturned all of the convictions because the boys' right to effective counsel had been violated. They ruled that the boys must get new trials.
The second round of trials was held beginning in March 1933, with the Boys in prison during the interim. Haywood Patterson's trial was the first of the retrials, as this time, each defendant was to be tried separately. International Labor Defense hired Samuel Leibowitz, a noted attorney from New York City and mainstream Democrat who had never been associated with class-based causes but was widely known for never losing a murder trial, to defend the Scottsboro Boys at the new trials, held in nearby Decatur. ILD attorney Joseph Brodsky was selected to assist him. This selection would backfire on the boys as the whites from the south viewed Leibowitz and Brodsky as foreigners, northerners, Communists, and Jews. Particularly upsetting was that the lawyers called into question the southern practice of excluding Blacks from juries, and addressing whites in court by their last name, and blacks by first name.
The prosecuting attorney was Thomas Knight, Jr. This time it was one of the accusers, Ruby Bates, after disappearing for a time to escape from the pressure and the media attention, returned to testify in court when newspapers used private investigation information that Bates and Price had once been prostitutes in Tennessee. She recanted her previous testimony, now stating that she and Price had lied about being raped because they were afraid that they might be charged with the federal crime of crossing state lines for immoral purposes, as they had been traveling with some non-related male companions on the train. Jury members again voted for conviction, having apparently believed the prosecution's suggestion that Bates was now lying and had changed her testimony only because the defense had paid her to do so. The attorney for the prosecution, Attorney General (of Alabama) Knight attacked Bates, calling attention to her new clothes and accessories, and Bates answered that the Communists had supplied her with everything.
The jury sentenced Haywood Patterson to death. The defense moved for a retrial, and Judge James Edwin Horton, privately believing the defendants to be innocent, agreed to set aside the guilty verdict, despite knowing it meant the loss of his job when he ran for re-election.
Horton was then taken off the case by the Alabama Supreme Court. In his place, the State put Judge William Washington Callahan.
For his decision Horton said:
History, sacred and profane, and the common experience of mankind teach us that women of the character shown in this case are prone for selfish reasons to make false accusations both of rape and of insult upon the slightest provocation for ulterior purposes. These women are shown, by the great weight of the evidence, on this very day before leaving Chattanooga, to have falsely accused two Negroes of insulting them, and of almost precipitating a fight between one of the white boys they were in company with and these two Negroes. This tendency on the part of the women shows that they are predisposed to make false accusations upon any occasion whereby their selfish ends may be gained.
The Court will not pursue the evidence any further.
As heretofore stated the law declares that a defendant should not be convicted without corroboration where the testimony of the prosecutrix bears on its face indications of improbability or unreliability and particularly when it is contradicted by other evidence.
The testimony of the prosecutrix in this case is not only uncorroborated, but it also bears on its face indications of improbability and is contradicted by other evidence, and in addition thereto the evidence greatly preponderates in favor of the defendant. It therefore becomes the duty of the Court under the law to grant the motion made in this case.
It is therefore ordered and adjudged by the Court that the motion be granted; that the verdict of the jury in this case and the judgment of the Court sentencing this defendant to death be set aside and that a new trial be and the same is hereby ordered.
James E. Horton, Circuit Judge
The four who had charges dropped had spent over 6 years in prison on death row without trial.
Governor Graves had planned to pardon all of the defendants before he left office in 1938. However, during the customary pre-pardon interview, Graves was angered by the mens' hostility towards him and refusal to admit their guilt, so he did not issue pardons.
The appearance of the defense's final and most dramatic witness, Ruby Bates, might have been taken from the script of a hokey Hollywood movie. In the months before the trial, Bates' whereabouts were a mystery. Leibowitz announced that he was resting his case, then approached the bench and asked for a short recess. Minutes later National Guardsmen open the back doors of the courtroom, and-- to the astonished gasps of spectators and the dismay of Knight-- in walked Ruby Bates. Under direct examination, Bates said a troubled conscience and the advice of famous New York minister Harry Emerson Fosdick prompted her to return to Alabama to tell the truth about what happened on March 25, 1931. Bates said that there was no rape, that none of the defendants touched her or even spoke to her, and that the accusations of rape were made after Price told her "to frame up a story" to avoid morals charges. On cross-examination, Knight ripped into Bates, confronting her both with her conflicting testimony in the first trials and accusations that her new versions of events had been bought with new clothes and other Communist Party gifts. He demanded to know whether he hadn't told her months before in his office that he would "punish anyone who made her swear falsely" and that he "did not want to burn any person that wasn't guilty." "I think you did," Bates answered.
While it has sometimes been suggested that the case inspired Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee denied this, claiming it was a far less sensational case that moved her to write the novel.
Allen Ginsberg in his poem "America", written at Berkeley on January 17, 1956, mentioned the Scottsboro boys. Author Kelly Covin published a book about the case in 1972 titled "Hear That Train Blow." In 2008, Ellen Feldman wrote Scottsboro: A Novel, based on the events of the Scottsboro trial.
In 1998, Court TV produced a television documentary on the Scottsboro trials for its Greatest Trials of All Time series. Daniel Anker and Barak Goodman produced the story of the Scottsboro Boys in the 2001 documentary Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, which received an Oscar nomination. Timothy Hutton starred in a 2006 film adaptation titled Heavens Fall.