The bill, sponsored by a House Democrat and a Senate Republican, was drafted to exonerate the Scottsboro Boys — nine black men whose convictions, on false charges of rape, have sullied the state's reputation since 1931. But it could lead to a flood of appeals to right similar, lesser-known injustices.
"We could have eight petitioners," said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. "We could have 80. We could have 800. We just don't know."
Orr and Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville held a press conference Monday to make the case for the bill, known as the Scottsboro Boys Act.
The Scottsboro Boys were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in northern Alabama. During seven years of trials and retrials that followed, the case became an international symbol of racial injustice in Alabama's criminal system. Eight of the nine were originally sentenced to death by all-white juries. In a court-ordered retrial, four of the nine were convicted, even though one of the accusers had admitted fabricating her testimony.
Only one of the nine, Clarence Norris, was pardoned. That happened in 1976, after then-Attorney General Bill Baxley hired the state's first black assistant attorneys general. Milton Davis was one of those attorneys, and he asked Baxley if he could pursue a pardon for Norris.
"He gave me one order," Davis said. "He said do everything you think is right to do, and I'll back you 100 percent."
His work didn't just get the Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend a pardon for Norris — it got the approval of then-Gov. George Wallace.
Birmingham lawyer Richard Jaffe, who also worked on Scottsboro Boys pardons, described the case as "'To Kill a Mockingbird,' times nine."
But efforts to clear the names of the other eight went nowhere, for years. When Sheila Washington, director of the Scottsboro Boys Museum, tried to pursue the matter again in this century, she found a new obstacle. By law, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles doesn't pardon dead people.
"It's long overdue," she said. "It's 83 years ago, but this case will never die."
Washington said advocates of exoneration approached Orr, Hall and others for a law that would allow the board to pardon people after death.
The resulting bill allows pardons of dead defendants "for the purpose of remedying social injustice associated with racial discrimination" in cases 80 years old or older.
But even with those limits, supporters say the bill could lead to a flood of pardon applications. All-white juries and trumped-up charges were the norm for black defendants in the Jim Crow era.
"That's why we had the 80-year limit, just to keep it manageable," Orr said.
Orr said he had discussed the bill with members of the Pardons and Parole Board, but not with the full board. Attempts to reach the board for comment Monday were unsuccessful.
But the board clearly has a large caseload of living applicants. Alabama's prison system is at nearly twice its capacity, state officials have said. Last year, Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas floated the idea of a second parole board to relieve pressure on the system if the state couldn't find funding for prisons.
Speakers at the Monday press conference cautioned legislators to guard against problems in the current legal system that could create more situations like the Scottsboro Boys case.
"We still have loopholes, we still have racial discrimination in jury selection, and we still have problems providing effective assistance of counsel," said Jaffe, the Birmingham lawyer.
Fred Gray Sr., the lawyer who filed the 1955 suit that integrated Montgomery buses and the 1963 suit that desegregated Alabama's schools, congratulated lawmakers on their efforts, but said it wasn't enough to correct wrongs from the distant past.
"In every aspect of life — health care, unemployment, criminal justice — the disparity between the minority and the majority is apparent," he said.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.