Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A salute to hero 'Scottsboro Boys' Judge Edwin Horton

Supporters of what we do here need to read this post -- you will relish the wonderful quote by the judge we honor in this post.

This month, the Alabama town of Scottsboro opened The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center, a museum documenting the infamous rape prosecution and its aftermath.  Today we salute one of the true heroes of the American judiciary, the late Judge Edwin Horton, one of the "Scottsboro Boy" judges.

For those not familiar with the Scottsboro Boy rape prosecutions, it is the poster child for false rape claims in America and we could devote this entire blog to its legacy.  It is universally considered a stain on America's racial past, and it surely is.  But it is also a frightening reminder of  America's shameful legacy of rushing to judgment on rape accusations against all innocent men of all colors.  Case after case reported on this blog demonstrates that the words of President Theodore Roosevelt's state of the Union address in 1906 were sadly prophetic, and the urge to "rush to judgment" on rape charges is no longer confined to black men: "The mob which lynches a negro charged with rape will in a little while lynch a white man suspected of crime. Every Christian patriot in America needs to lift up his voice in loud and eternal protest against the mob spirit that is threatening the integrity of this Republic."

Judge Horton was assigned to preside over the trial of Haywood Patterson, one of the falsely accused Scottsboro Boys. Mr. Patterson was just 15 years-old when he was arrested after two white women accused him of rape. The jury convicted Mr. Patterson to die for his supposed crime, and the defense counsel, Samuel Leibowitz, filed a motion for a new trial. Mr. Leibowitz was so certain that Judge Edwin Horton would deny his motion that he stayed in New York and did not attend the oral argument. Judge Horton shocked everyone that day, and struck a blow for justice that is still remembered, when he threw out the verdict.  His words echo to this day, and could be read almost verbatim in courtrooms across America where men are still being wrongly accused and convicted of rape. Judge Horton said, part: :

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. . . . . 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 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.  (Emphasis added.)

Predictably, Judge Horton was removed from the case by the state Supreme Court and was not permitted to preside over the retrial.  At the retrial before a different judge, Patterson was again convicted and sentenced to death.  That conviction was reversed on appeal, but in yet another retrial, he was convicted once more.  This time he was not sentenced to death but only to 75 years imprisonment, a sentence one of his false accusers condemned as too lenient.  Mr. Patterson eventually escaped and fled to Michigan where he wrote a book about his ordeal.  The Governmor of Michigan refused to allow him to be extradicted to Alabama, but Patterson found himself in trouble with the law and ended up back in prison where he died of cancer in 1952.

After the Patterson trial, Judge Horton was easily defeated for reelection.

Contrast Judge Horton to another man who knew the truth, Dr. Marvin Lynch, but who refused to testify for fear it would destroy his medical practice.  Dr. Lynch told Judge Horton privately:  "Judge, I looked at both the women and told them they were lying, that they knew they had not been raped and they just laughed at me. ... If I testified for those boys I'd never be able to go back into Jackson County."

All of us need to ask ourselves, who are we -- Judge Horton, who had to know that his ruling would jeopardize his chances of retaining office but did the right thing so that an innocent young man would not die for a false rape charge, or Dr. Lynch, who knew that standing up for the falsely accused was entirely too politically incorrect?