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Sixth Amendment Jurisprudence on the Basis of Race—The Scottsboro Boys and Duane Buck

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

Both the Supreme Court decisions of Powell v. Alabama 287 U.S. 45 (1932) and Buck v. Davis 580 U.S. (2017) used the Sixth Amendment as their basis for the ruling. Both of these cases were related to counseling. And both of these cases overruled a sentence of capital punishment. But, one concept that is perhaps the most important is the concept of Black criminality and the role it played in leading the defendants to get the sentence of capital punishment in the first place.

In early 1931, nine Black teenagers—spanning ages of thirteen to nineteen—were accused of raping two white women on a freight train in Alabama. Their names were Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Ozzie Powell, Eugene Williams, Charley Weems, and Roy Wright. All of them, besides Roy Wright (because of age), were sentenced to death. Protests arose and eventually, the Supreme Court overturned this punishment in 1932 in Powell v. Alabama.

Not only was the United States in the midst of The Great Depression at the time of this ruling, but twenty years prior, the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910 was passed. This piece of legislation shapes our modern understandings and enforcements of sex work, victimhood, inter-racial relationships, domesticity, and more, but it also successfully solidified America’s understanding of preserving and protecting white womanhood, with the biggest threat being non-white or immigrant men with a focus on Black men. Five years later, A Birth of a Nation was released, cementing this idea into mainstream culture. Between the years from the passage of the White-Slave Traffic Act to the Scottsboro boys was the fermenting of Black male criminality with the protection of the white status quo—and white innocence—at the center.

The idea that Black men were inherently prone to criminality is revealed in the accounts of the time. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, a newspaper correspondent described the case as: “At first the South looked upon Scottsboro as just another ‘Negro rape’ case … They called the boys ‘black friends’ and ‘Negro brutes’ and clamored for ‘quick justice’ — meaning wholesale slaughter.”

The Supreme Court ruling saved the Scottsboro boys from legal death at the hands of the state with the Sixth Amendment being at the center of the ruling. However, this case is often noted as an “American Tragedy,” and pertinent to the next case I will review, the same ideas of Black criminality still fester today.

Sixty-four years later, Duane Edward Buck was arrested for murdering his girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and her friend. He was convicted of capital murder in Texas. In order to deem Buck, not a flight risk, his lawyers called in two psychologists to testify. Dr. Walter Quijano, one of the psychologists, “suggested that the fact Buck is Black was relevant” to him being dangerous in the future. This implied that Buck was a flight risk because he was Black. An explicit link to Buck’s race and supposed proneness to criminal activity. The Supreme Court ruled this case in 2017, setting the precedent that, according to Justice Sotomayor, that “the way to stop discrimination on the bases of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

Following the same rhetoric of Black criminality that was discussed earlier in this article, this worked for the benefit of Buck as he escaped death from the state because of this racist idea that was created to protect the status quo. Originally, when the lower courts were attempting to figure out what to do with this case (in the simplest terms), Buck argued and said that his case satisfied the “extraordinary circumstances of Rule 60(b)(6),” which would open the door for the Supreme Court to see Buck’s case and ultimately rule. And to Justice Sotomayor’s point, the only way to confront this is through an open and candid conversation surrounding race. I would argue and extend this to challenging the white status quo that created these conditions. I would also argue and say that this case isn’t extraordinary, but rather ordinary for the United States.

Finally, I would say that the protecting of white womanhood which has been perpetuated for centuries but displayed outwardly with the Scottsboro boys, allows for the unprotecting of Black women to fester blindly. Debra Gardner, a Black woman, should not be forgotten in this story. And her death, and its intersections with the maintenance of the white status quo, deserves another article separate from this discussion.

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