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Patterson v. Alabama

Norris Case Decided

The case of Clarence Norris was decided first. On 1 April, Chief Justice Hughes delivered the opinion of the High Court, which held that the exclusion of blacks from jury service was pervasive and deliberate. In rendering its decision, the Court relied on overwhelming evidence of tampering with jury rolls to indicate that blacks had been considered for jury service--when in fact they had not been. Hughes rejected the state of Alabama's contention that many blacks simply were not qualified for jury service. He wrote:

In the light of the testimony given by the defendant's witnesses, we find it impossible to accept such a sweeping characterization of the lack of qualifications of Negroes in Morgan County. It is so sweeping; and so contrary to the evidence . . . that it destroys the intended effect on the commissioner's testimony.
He ordered the judgment of the appeals court reversed and a new trial ordered.

The decision in Norris v. Alabama was to prove pivotal for Haywood Patterson's case as well. While the Supreme Court agreed with the state of Alabama that Patterson's case should have been thrown out for technical legal violations, it was reluctant to send a man to death on the same evidence that had been relied upon to grant Norris a new trial. "We cannot ignore the exceptional features of this case," Chief Justice Hughes wrote in his majority opinion. He concluded that the Alabama State Supreme Court should be given another chance to rule on the matter in light of the new evidence. Hughes also strongly hinted that the U.S. Supreme Court would take another look at the case if Patterson's conviction were not overturned and a new trial granted.

In the end, Haywood Patterson was granted a new trial. But the result was the same. In 1936, a jury composed of 13 whites and one black found him guilty. He was sentenced to 75 years in prison. He pursued another appeal, but this time the Supreme Court refused to hear his case. Patterson died in prison in 1952.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Patterson v. Alabama - The Scottsboro Case, Patterson's Case, Norris Case Decided, Jury Nullification