Legal Malpractice

Six men hung in Georgia, 1919. American justice was distorted by hate and prejudice for generations, and not only in the South, although it most frequently occurred south of the Mason Dixon line. Ofter This is another legacy of white supremacy and racism, portraying blacks as ignorant, sub-human brutes, a mythology that led to lynching and mass legal malpractice, typified in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. A plethora of real-life individual examples of racially biased justice abound, as the Equal Justice Initiative and other criminal justice reform organizations have demonstrated. Some of the most egregious examples of a miscarriage of American justice include:

The Scottsboro Boys Nine African American teenagers, ages 12 to 20 were accused of raping two white women on an Alabama train in 1931. The jail was surrounded by an angry lynch mob before the suspects were indicted; they were three rushed trials with all-white juries. During one retrial, one supposed victim testified that the story of rape was fabricated — none of the nine touched either woman. The jury still found the defendants guilty, but the judge set aside the verdict and set a new trial. The case went to the US Supreme Court, which ruled that juries had to include African-Americans and another retrial. Charges were dropped for four defendants, but five received sentences ranging from 75 years to death. By 1946, all were released or had escaped. One was shot and permanently disabled by a sheriff’s deputy while being escorted. In November 2013, the Alabama parole board granted posthumous pardons to the three living individuals.

The Groveland Four, men ranging in age from 16 to 22 accused of raping a 17-year-old white female and assaulting her husband in July 1949 in Lake County, Florida. Two were World War II veterans. One was killed by a 1,000-man posse who pumped 400 rounds into his body. The other three were arrested and beaten to obtain confessions; one refused. All three survivors were convicted by an all-white jury; the 16-year-old received life imprisonment and the other two were sentenced to death. In 1951, the United States Supreme Court ordered a retrial after hearing appeals by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Thurgood Marshall. In November 1951, alleging they tried to escape, a sheriff shot the two facing execution, handcuffed together, killing one and seriously wounding the other. In 1949, the executive director of the Florida NAACP campaigned against their wrongful conviction. On Christmas eve 1951 a bomb went off at his house, killing him and his wife. Thurgood Marshall, special counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, represented the survivor at a second trial, but he was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. In 1955, his sentence was commuted to life. He was paroled in 1968, but died the next year. In 2016, the City of Groveland and Lake County apologized to the four men’s families. they were posthumously exonerated in April 2017 by a resolution of the Florida legislature. In January 2019, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency voted to pardon the Groveland Four and the governor approved. 

The Martinsville Seven, men between the ages of 18 and 20; one was 38, convicted and executed in 1951 for raping a white woman in Martinsville, Virginia in 1949. They were quickly tried in six separate trials; each was convicted and sentenced to death, the largest mass execution for rape in the United States. Originally defended by the Civil Rights Congress, the NAACP objected, fearing backlash because of the CRC’s Communist connections. NAACP attorneys defended the men on appeal, attempting to ensure fair trials, set due process precedents, and gain clemency or sentence reductions, noting that since Virginia started use of the electric chair, only black men had been executed for rape. The US Supreme Court twice refused to hear the case, but it attracted national press coverage and the men were executed in 1951. The state of Virginia has not apologized.

The Trenton Six, men ranging in age from 23 to 37, arrested for killing a white furniture store owner in Trenton, New Jersey in 1949. Witnesses described “two to three black men” and “two to four light-skinned teenagers;” the six men arrested did not fit either description. Five of the six signed inconsistent and coerced confessions; all provided rock-solid alibis. Nonetheless, an all-white jury sentenced them to death. On appeal, their convictions were overturned due to weak evidence and perjury by the medical examiner. After multiple re-trials, four were acquitted and two were found guilty of lesser sentences.

African American youth on Southern chain gang. “Vagrancy” laws were used liberally to round up workforces for plantations and business, including large US corporations.

The Wilmington Ten During disputes over school desegregation, nine black men and a white woman were convicted of firebombing a convenience store in Wilmington, North Carolina. After their conviction in 1971, they remained in prison for nearly a decade. Thousands of defenders, including James Baldwin, Andrew Young and other prominent figures marched on Washington, D.C. in 1978 to demand justice. All ten were released by the end of the following year; their convictions were overturned in 1980 after it was discovered that prosecutors bribed witnesses and tampered with evidence. The governor of North Carolina officially pardoned them in 2012.

The Central Park Five, juvenile defendants ranging in age from 14 to 16 accused of assaulting and raping a 28-year-old white female jogger and attacking eight other persons, three of whom were black or Latino, in April 1989. The jogger was in a coma for 12 days. Detectives and the DA railroaded the youth although no DNA evidence connected any of the five to the crime.    took out a full-page ad in the New York Times demanding their conviction. The four juvenile defendants served 6–7 years and the 16-year-old was sentenced as an adult and served 13 years. In 2001, a convicted murderer and serial rapist serving life in prison confessed that he raped the jogger. The court vacated their convictions in 2002; New York City awarded the five plaintiffs $41 million in 2014. The five men also received an additional $3.9 million from New York state in 2016.

African American burned alive by an angry mob.

Gene Betit

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