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Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys (1976) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

trial court defendants courtroom

Principal social themes: racism/civil rights, hate groups

Tomorrow Entertainment. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Arthur Hill, Vera Miles, Lewis J. Stadlen, Ken Kercheval, Ellen Barber, Suzanne Lederer, Tom Ligon, David Harris, Ronny Clanton, Gregory Wyatt, Wallace Thomas, Larry Butts, Bruce Watson. Written by John McGreevey based on the book Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South by Dan T. Carter. Cinematography by Mario Tosi. Edited by Eric Albertson. Produced by Paul Leaf. Directed by Fiedler Cook. Color. 98 minutes.


In 1931, nine black men were accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama, while hitching a ride on a freight train. On the flimsiest evidence, they were tried and sentenced to death in one of the most controversial legal cases in America since the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. When the Alabama Supreme Court threw out the convictions, the “Scottsboro Boys,” as they were called, were retried in 1933 in Decatur, Alabama, in the court of Circuit Judge James Edwin Horton. This telefilm concentrates on this unusual trial, which eventually led to greater protection of the civil rights of minority defendants in the American justice system. This telefilm received critical acclaim and recognition by the Emmy Awards.


This film largely presents the story of the trial from the viewpoint of Judge Horton (Arthur Hill) and his wife, who alternately serve as narrators for the unfolding events. Horton and his legal friends regard the Scottsboro case with suspicion and open hostility to the outsiders, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who are providing the defense with legal council. They regard them and other northern groups as Communist inspired. They do agree that the first trail was a mockery, forcing the state supreme court to step in because the defendants did not have adequate legal council. When the new trial was shifted to Horton’s court, his friends observed that he was being groomed for a seat on the state’s supreme court.

Due to state law, each of the defendants was scheduled to receive a separate trial. The first defendant to be prosecuted was Haywood Patterson (David Harris), a brash, angry, black man who is older and more hostile than the other accused prisoners, who are as young as thirteen years old. When the trial begins, Horton tries to operate his court in a proper, impartial manner. Patterson is defended by Sam Liebowitz (Lewis J. Stadlen), a Jewish attorney from New York. The prosecutor is DA Tom Knight, one of the most popular lawyers in the state. The prosecution’s case is based solely on the testimony of Victoria Price (Ellen Barber), who claims the nine men raped her. The second woman has vanished. Horton first realizes something is wrong when one of the two doctors scheduled to testify asks to be excused. In private, the doctor tells Horton that no rape took place, but that he was afraid to testify because the Ku Klux Klan would ruin his career. The defense calls a white hobo as a witness, and he contradicts much of Victoria’s story. Later, the defense has a breakthrough. They locate the second woman, Ruby Bates (Suzanne Lederer), who claims she lied at the first trial due to pressure from Victoria. She testifies that no rape occurred, that she made up the story to avoid arrest when lawmen pulled off all the freeloaders who were riding on the freight train. The courtroom erupts with hostility at Ruby’s testimony, and they pelt her with eggs as she leaves the courtroom.

At the end of the trial, the DA whips up the courtroom with anti-Semitic and racist slurs. Horton warns him twice. When Horton hands the case over to the jury, he insists that they ignore race and concentrate solely on the evidence. Instead, they bring in a guilty verdict and impose the death sentence. The defense appeals to Judge Horton to set the jury’s verdict aside. This is a routine motion that is almost always dismissed. Instead, Horton stuns the courtroom by ordering a new trial, declaring that the prosecution’s case was clearly insufficient. The courtroom audience, including many KKK adherents, erupts in anger, and Liebowitz looks at the judge in total surprise. The DA tells Horton that he has just ruined his career. A closing narration confirms that Horton was defeated for reelection as judge and never again served in a public office. All of the Scottsboro Boys were retried, convicted, and sentenced to death, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned these convictions, imparting new guidelines for the civil rights of defendants. All of them were eventually pardoned and released. The fate of all the principals in the case was also revealed in the closing narration. James Edwin Horton was widely hailed as a courageous advocate of justice. He lived until 1967.


The Scottsboro case was a mockery of the justice system as practiced in the Deep South, where racism and the influence of the KKK was enormous. The case also inspired the courtroom drama in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird , in which a black defendant accused of rape is found guilty despite proof that he was physically incapable of the attack. Likewise, one of the Scottsboro defendants was legally blind. Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys is a stunning portrait of the culture of racism, in which decent men of law abandon all sense of right and wrong. All of the evidence proved that Victoria Price was a perjurer, yet her word was taken without doubt. If the defendants were white, this case never would have been brought to trial. Students of the film can explore other factors involved in the case, such as regional xenophobia and mob rule. Much of the film is presented in a low-key fashion, allowing the facts to stand for themselves without exaggeration. Arthur Hill is magnificent as the conscientious Judge Horton, who truly believes justice is blind. There are few other sympathetic characters. Even Lewis J. Stadlen’s Sam Liebowitz seems to grandstand too much at first, weakening his client’s slim chances. One of the film’s finest moments is when Liebowitz gradually realizes the depth of Horton’s dedication to objectivity and truth.

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