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Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

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People & Events: Judge William Washington Callahan, 1863 - ?

"Where the woman charged to have been raped, as in this case, is a white woman, there is a very strong presumption under the law that she will not and did not yield voluntarily to intercourse with the defendant, a Negro. And this is true whatever the station in life the prosecutrix may occupy, whether she be the most despised, ignorant and abandoned woman of the community, or the spotless virgin and daughter of a prominent home of luxury and learning."
-- Charge to the jury, Haywood Patterson trial, 1933

William Washington Callahan was born June 30, 1863 on a farm in Alabama. His formal schooling ended with high school, but he read law in the office of W. P. Chitwood, and worked as a lawyer and state representative before being elected as a judge in 1928.

After Judge James Horton was asked to step down from the Patterson case, all the Scottsboro cases were transferred to Judge Callahan's court. Unlike Horton, Callahan forbade cameras in his courtroom ("There ain't going to be no more picture snappin' round here," he declared) and made clear that the press was much less welcome. Callahan tried to keep the case as straightforward as possible, limiting many of defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz'sobjections and sustaining most of the prosecution's objections of Leibowitz -- and even chiming in with a few objections of his own.

On the subject of Victoria Price's virtue, or lack thereof, Callahan objected to lines of questioning that impugned her reputation. When Leibowitz inquired as to who accompanied Price on the train, Callahan objected, "I can't allow the time of the court wasted on matters so immaterial. You mustn't ask that question again." When Leibowitz continued to ask about the night previous to the alleged rape, Callahan said: "That is far enough for me to know all I want to know, to know that the question is illegal," and admonishing Leibowitz: "The more I shut you off the better shape you're in." Avoiding the background of a rape victim is a position still taken in contemporary rape cases; however, this left only one explanation for the medical reports that indicated the presence of semen in both women. Patterson was convicted of the crime.

All the other Scottsboro trials brought before Judge Callahan ended in the convictions of the defendants. As talk grew of a potential compromise in the case, Judge Callahan made clear that he was not supporting such an outcome, that he would not accept a "fifty-dollar fine for rape." In 1937, the prosecution dropped the charges against five of the black defendants, and changed the charge against Ozie Powell to assault on a deputy. Callahan, disregarding the six years Powell had already spent in jail, sentenced him to the maximum, twenty years.

Further information on the Scottsboro cases heard by Judge Callahan, including excerpts from testimony, are available on Professor Douglas Linder's Famous American Trials Web site at the University of Missouri - Kansas City Law School.

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