MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Though the Alabama Legislature has cleared the way for posthumous pardons of the Scottsboro Boys, much work — from legal documents to public hearings — remains before the names of the nine black teens wrongly convicted more than 80 years ago are officially cleared.
The Scottsboro Boys were convicted by all-white juries of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931. All but the youngest were sentenced to death, even though one of the women recanted her story. All eventually got out of prison. Only one received a pardon before he died.
The case became a symbol of the tragedies wrought by racial injustice. It inspired songs, books and films. A Broadway musical was staged in 2010, the same year a museum opened that was dedicated to the case. The Scottsboro Boys’ appeals resulted in U.S. Supreme Court decisions that criminal defendants are entitled to effective counsel and that blacks can’t be systematically excluded from criminal juries.
In April, the state Legislature passed a bill to allow posthumous pardons in the case, and Gov. Robert Bentley signed it into law. But before the pardons are officially issued, the state Board of Pardons and Paroles must receive applications for them from a circuit judge or district attorney in one of the counties where the Scottsboro Boys’ original trials occurred. The applications must show that pardons would remedy social injustices associated with racial discrimination. Then the board would have to hold a public hearing and vote to grant the pardons, Assistant Executive Director Eddie Cook Jr. said.
“No one has sent in anything yet,” he said of the needed paperwork.
Sheila Washington, founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in northeast Alabama, said that will happen soon. “Trust me. It is not going away after we got it this far,” she said.
When Washington started a campaign for pardons in the case, she discovered state law did not permit them for dead defendants. She worked with Republican state Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur to get the new legislation passed in April. It permits the parole board to issue posthumous pardons in cases at least 80 years old. “It’s time to right this wrong,” Bentley said at the signing.
Washington said she took a break after the law passed, but added that now is the time to get back to work and get them issued. She said she will have help from researchers at the University of Alabama in compiling the necessary information.
Orr agreed with Washington that the paperwork will be completed and the applications filed, likely by an official in Jackson County where the first trial occurred. The work will likely take a few weeks.
To support their paperwork, they can use a resolution championed by Democratic Rep. John Robinson of Scottsboro that also became law last month. It says the nine “were the victims of gross injustice” and are considered formally exonerated.
Cook said the parole board can’t start the pardon process until it gets the paperwork. “The groundwork to do this is on someone else’s shoulders,” he said.
But he said it will be a fascinating case to handle once the paperwork is filed. “This case is taught in most law schools in the country,” he said.
Once the pardons are granted, Washington’s work won’t be done. She said she hopes public attention about the pardons will help her solve one mystery about the case: The burial sites of five of the Scottsboro boys remain unknown.
Most of Scottsboro Boys faded from public view after being released by the state. Only one had a relative attend a ceremony at the Scottsboro museum when the governor signed the pardon legislation.
Washington said her goal is to for all the graves to be marked with tombstones noting the Scottsboro Boys’ place in American history.