• U.S.

FLORIDA: Passing the Test

4 minute read

In a legal sense, it was four young, white Florida Tobacco Readers who were on trial last week in a sweltering Tallahassee courtroom. They were charged with abducting a 19-year-old coed at Florida A. & M. University (for Negroes), forcing her at shotgun and knifepoint into a lonely stand of pines and blackjack oaks and between them, raping her seven times. But in a broader and more important sense, the Southern, segregated State of Florida was being tested in its ability to render equal justice under the law. Florida passed the test with dignity and a fine regard for law and justice.

The defendants. Willion Collinswort, 23; Patrick Scarborough, 20; David Ervin Beagles, 18, and Ollie Stoutamire, 16, made up a sorry lot of delinquents, victims as well as products of their squalid environments. Collinsworth. an illiterate telephone lineman, is a chronic drunk, son of a sadist who beat him habitually throughout his childhood. Scarborough, an Air Force enlisted man, is an orphan whose mother was shot to death in a barroom brawl when he was seven and whose father committed suicide the same year. Stoutamire quit school after the eighth grade, has had a brush with juvenile authorities. Beagles is a high-school senior, the son of a truck driver and a waitress.

Ugly Pleasure. Early last month, after an evening of boozing, the four went out deliberately looking for a Negro girl to ravish. They found their victim,† who had just been to a college dance, with her escort and another couple in a parked car behind a drive-in theater. Hours later, their ugly pleasure taken, the rapists gagged the Negro girl, flung her on the floor of their car and sped off. Deputy sheriffs, warned by the girl’s companions, chased the rapists at 90 m.p.h. and overtook them. The Leon County sheriff’s office swiftly got confessions. The case came to trial only 39 days later. Circuit Judge W. May Walker presided as though the defendants and their victim had skins of the same color.

The trial’s most dramatic moments came when the complaining witness herself took the stand. She had not cried out or resisted, she testified, because “there wasn’t anything I could do with four men with a gun and a knife but do what they said to do … I started crying and they said to shut up.”

The burden of the defense—beyond pleading that the rapists were not responsible for their crime by reason of youth or mental deficiency—was that the girl had willingly joined in sexual intercourse. That line was devastatingly rebutted by Deputy Sheriff W. W. Slappey, the first cop to talk to the victim after the crime. Asked to describe her condition, Slappey said that she was trembling, crying, “jerking all over and hysterical.”

Quiet Leave-Taking. State Attorney William D. Hopkins passionately asked the all-male, all-white jury for equal justice under law, regardless of race. “This law-enforcement proposition has got to be consistent if it’s going to be successful.” In his charge to the jury, Judge Walker ordered that the case be considered “without regard to race, color or creed.”

Less than three hours later, the jury delivered its verdict: guilty, but with a recommendation for mercy. That meant the rapists would not die in the electric chair, but could get life imprisonment. Just before the decision, Judge Walker warned against any spectator demonstration. The warning was unnecessary: the whites on the main floor and the Negroes in the segregated gallery left quietly, in the same orderly fashion in which the trial had been conducted.

* Florida law prohibits the publication of names of rape victims.

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