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Scottsboro Boys: did they receive justice and can it happen again?

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The wheels of justice can turn slowly. In November 2013, the Alabama governor pardoned the last three African American men who were convicted of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama—eighty years after their convictions. The famous group called the “Scottsboro Boys” has finally received the justice that they were denied in 1931 when they unjustly convicted.

Many people know their story; it has been the subject of books, movies, and even a musical. The story overflows with drama: nine black youths accused of raping two white women, an attempted lynching, quick trials, quicker guilty verdicts, inevitable death sentences, life-saving appeals, and two ground-breaking Supreme Court decisions. And, finally, three long-deserved pardons to conclude the story.

During this time, all nine Scottsboro boys have died. The last of the group, Clarence Norris, who was pardoned by then-Governor George Wallace, died in 1989.

Hayward Patterson, Charlie Weems, and Andy Wright were the final three men to be pardoned. They lived with their unjust convictions for decades.

For many African Americans, the Scottsboro Boys are the poster boys of a racist U.S. criminal justice system that allowed (and even encouraged) false accusations against black men, trumped up charges, and unjust punishments. While the books will now be closed and the Scottsboro Boys story relegated into the annals of history, the system remains rife with miscarriages of justice.

Albert Woodfox (one of the famous Angola Three group) remains in solitary confinement in Louisiana. He has been held in solitary confinement for the past 41 years. Another member of the Angola Three group, Henry Wallace, who was recently released after 41 years in solitary confinement, died within days of his release.

Many other African Americans remain imprisoned using laws that are unjust and inhuman. Three types of laws are used that can lead to “Scottsboro” syndrome:

  1. Three Strikes laws require excessively long sentences for persons convicted of three serious (sometimes, non-violent) felonies.
  2. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are used inordinately against African Americans who are convicted of drug-related and other non-violent crimes.
  3. Capital punishment is another venue in which African Americans are persecuted. Statistics show that the death penalty is given to African Americans more than other racial and ethnic groups, particularly when the victim is Caucasian.

Amidst these harsh laws and excessive punishments, the Supreme Court is restricting the protections provided by the U.S. Constitution.

As the Scottsboro Boys can rest in peace after removing the cloud of their criminal convictions, the “Scottsboro” syndrome is not dead. It is a living phenomenon that continues to cause miscarriages of justice for African Americans.

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