I thought it would be interesting to start this little segment where I profile individuals who I consider to be true heroes. The goal of this will be to shed light on some historical people that may not be very well known to the public at large.
My first profile will be about Judge James Horton. In 1933, Horton was a circuit judge in Scottsboro, Alabama. He had one year left in his second term, but the popular judge was not expected to face a serious election challenge. Everything changed when the second trial of the "Scottsboro Boys" was assigned to his courtroom. Horton's actions during this trial essentially ended his legal career, but also made him one of the finest men to ever step foot in a courtroom.
The Scottsboro Boys were nine African-American teenagers who were accused by two white women of raping them on a railroad car. In 1930's Alabama, this pretty much guaranteed a conviction and that's what happened in the first trial. With hopelessly inadequate counsel representing them, they were quickly convicted and sentenced to death (except for 12 yr old Roy Wright, as one minister on the jury refused to sentence the youngest boy to death). The verdicts were appealed to the Supreme Court, which overturned them due to inadequate counsel.
The second set of trials were now receiving tons of publicity and there was hostility among local citizens. One of the first great acts Judge Horton undertook was on day three of the trial after hearing reports of an planned lynching of the defendants. He issued a strong and passionate warning to any potential lynchers. Here are some excerpts from his statement:
"Any man or group of men that attempts to take charge outside of the law, are not only disobedient to the law, but are citizens unworthy of the protection of the State of Alabama, and unworthy of the citizenship which they enjoy. I say this much, that the man who would engage in anything that would cause the death of any of these prisoners is not only a murderer, but a cowardly murderer, and a man whom we should look down upon with all the contempt in our being;"
"I am speaking with feeling, and I know it, because I am feeling it. I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit, and that spirit that would charge the guilt or innocence of any being without knowing of their guilt or innocence. Your very civilization depends upon the carrying out of your laws in an orderly manner."
"Now, gentlemen I want that understood, and I will say this much; if there is any meeting in this town where such matters are discussed, where such thoughts are brought forward, the men that attend such a meeting should be ashamed of themselves; they are unworthy citizens of your town, and the good people of this town look down on them. "
This pretty much ended any discussion of lynching, but the media circus was still alive and the trial had many twists and turns. One of the accusers, Ruby Bates, showed up as a surprise witness and recanted her story. Furthermore, a doctor came up to Judge Horton in private and said the physical evidence exonerated the defendants. The doctor refused to testify, worried that doing so would destroy his practice. Still, Judge Horton made sure to pay great attention to the testimony of the prosecution's doctor and that of Victoria Price, the other accuser who had not recanted her story.
Despite questionable physical evidence, one of the accusers admitting the story was made up, and dubious testimony from the other accuser, the jury still came back with a guilty verdict. The defense motioned for the verdict to be set aside because there wasn't sufficient evidence to convict. This is a standard motion that is rarely granted, and there was little hope that a judge would grant such a motion when the entire state of Alabama was convinced of the boys' guilt. Everyone was shocked when Judge Horton did just that (in a ruling that carefully laid out the evidence and left no doubt of the boys' innocence), sparing them of a death sentence and ordering a new trial to take place.
There was a third set of trials under a less favorable judge and the defendants were convicted again. However, the Supreme Court once again overturned the verdicts because African-Americans had been denied the right to serve on juries in Alabama. None of the defendants were ever found not guilty by a jury, but all eventually were paroled, escaped or had charges reduced. In 1948, one of the older boys Haywood Patterson escaped to Michigan and wrote a book about his experiences. When the book was released, the FBI arrested him but the Michigan governor refused to grant extradition back to Alabama. In 1976, Alabama governor George Wallace (in his attempt to appear more moderate on race relations) pardoned Clarence Norris, who was the last living Scottsboro Boy.
As for Judge Horton, he had been elected to the bench by comfortable margins in his first two terms, but was soundly defeated in his re-election bid this time around. He knew this was a very likely outcome before he made his decision, but was always strongly convinced he did the right thing. He had previously instructed the jury that they should do their duty "without fear or favor" and made sure to live up to his own words. The doctor who refused to testify was no doubt a good man and at least tried to do something. However, this is what separates great men from good men. Horton was willing to take the step and risk his career, while the doctor was not.
There have been many great men in the legal profession over the years. Names like John Marshall, Clarence Darrow, Thurgood Marshall, John Adams, and many others. James Horton belongs on that same list. His speech to the lynchers should be burned into the minds of all those who prejudge the guilt of a person, and his courageous decision to set aside the verdict should be a lesson to all of us in standing up for the right thing no matter the consequences. James Horton is an American hero because he sacrificed his career to save the lives of nine innocent teenagers.