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Scottsboro Boys - Legal Wrangling

leibowitz ild court alabama

On March 31 all nine of the Scottsboro Boys were indicted for rape. The defense team consisted of an unpaid and unprepared

Samuel Leibowitz


Samuel Leibowitz (1893–1978) was a noted New York attorney who represented the Scottsboro Boys after their initial 1931 trial. Leibowitz represented seventy-eight persons charged with first-degree murder in his fifteen-year career as a criminal defense attorney. His record showed seventy-seven acquittals, one hung jury, and no convictions. In the courtroom, Leibowitz had a compelling personality to accompany his detailed preparation and knowledge of the law.

Leibowitz read the court records of the first Scottsboro trial after receiving a call from the International Labor Defense (ILD). The ILD asked him to defend the Scottsboro Boys in their second trial. It was the medical testimony of Dr. R. R. Bridges saying that the alleged victims in the case had not been beaten or raped that convinced him of the boys' innocence, and he accepted the ILD's offer.

Many questioned Leibowitz's decision to take such a difficult case. He was a mainstream Democrat who had not been associated with racial causes. In this case, however, Leibowitz was serious in his quest for justice. He worked for several years without pay or reimbursement from his clients. His efforts won him the respect and gratitude of the Scottsboro Boys as well as several in the black community.

Leibowitz soon became the target of death threats in Alabama. He was assigned five uniformed members of the National Guard to protect him. Because of the nature Attorney Sam Leibowitz meeting with his clients, the Scottsboro boys. (© Bettmann/Corbis)
of the case, the governor made 150 more guardsmen available to defend against a possible lynch mob. Following several convictions in the marathon Scottsboro case, Leibowitz and the ILD ended up battling for control of the case. The animosity grew when two ILD attorneys were charged with attempting to bribe Victoria Price, who hinted that money could help change her story.

Leibowitz eventually took the Scottsboro Case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won the decision in Norris v. Alabama. The Supreme Court reversed the convictions of the lower courts when it was shown that blacks were illegally excluded from Alabama juries.

Chattanooga real estate attorney and a seventy-year-old local attorney who had not tried a case in decades. The prosecution broke the trials down into groups of two or three defendants each and began deliberations on April 6. All four trials were completed in three days. Eight of the boys were sentenced to death by electric chair. Twelve-year-old Roy Wright received a mistrial when eleven of the jurors wanted the death penalty, though the prosecution had specifically requested life imprisonment due to his age.

Several hours after the guilty sentences were handed down the International Labor Defense (ILD) wired Governor Miller demanding a stay (delay) of execution. The ILD was the legal arm of the American Communist Party, a radical political group trying to gain the support of oppressed minorities. The ILD moved aggressively to represent the case when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hesitated to take it due to the nature of the charges. The ILD pronounced the case a murderous frame-up and an example of the oppression of blacks in the United States.

When the ILD took over the defense they sought new trials by appealing the initial verdicts. They also gave the case international publicity. In January 1932 the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed all but one of the convictions and death sentences. They ruled that Eugene Williams, aged thirteen, should not have been tried as an adult. The ILD appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In October 1932 the convictions were overturned in the landmark case of Powell v. Alabama. The Court ruled that Alabama denied the right of the defendants to competent legal counsel under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause, which ensured fair treatment in the legal system and the right to a fair and public trial. The Scottsboro Boys were granted new trials.

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