Orville Gilley

Orville Gilley was the state's star witness in the 1933 trials of Patterson and Norris that followed Judge Horton's decision setting aside Patterson's earlier conviction.  Judge Horton based his decision primarily on the lack of any eyewitness testimony or physical evidence that provided substantial corroboration of Victoria Price's story of gang rape by pistol-waving blacks.  The day after Judge Horton's decision, prosecutor Thomas Knight announced that Orville Gilley, absent from Horton's courtroom, would be on hand at the next trials to provide the critical corroboration.

Orville Gilley was one of eight whites involved in a fight with about ten blacks on the Chattanooga to Memphis freight train that resulted in seven of the whites, all except Gilley, being thrown off the train.  When Gilley attempted to leap off the moving train, he fell between two cars and was left hanging to the side of a gondola in danger of being swept off of the train which was steadily picking up speed.  Haywood Patterson pulled Gilley back onto the car.  Patterson said in his second trial, "I pulled this white boy back up in the train and saved his life."  When the train was stopped by the posse in Paint Rock, it was the presence of Gilley, a sexual partner of Price who had been travelling with her and Bates, that increased the girls' concerns that they might be charged with adultery or a Mann Act violation.  It is possible that the semen found in Victoria Price's vagina by examining doctors was that of Gilley, who had recently slept with Price in a Chattanooga freight yard.

Before assuming a starring role in the late 1933 trials before Judge Callahan, Gilley played a bit role in the first Scottsboro trials, saying little other than that a fight had occurred.  If Gilley had actually witnessed the gang rape, as he said in 1933 that he did, why didn't he say so in 1931?  Ruby Bates said later it was because Gilley was initially reluctant to tell anything but the truth.  Between 1931 and 1933, however, prosecutor Knight sent "a rations check" weekly to Gilley's mother and spending money to Orville.  The defense believed that Gilley's testimony in late 1933 was the result of the prosecutor calling in his chips.  Leibowitz grilled Gilley during almost three hours of cross-examination, bringing out numerous contradictions between his testimony and that of Price.  But on the basic issue of whether the rape took place, Gilley confirmed her story. Gilley said that the rapes only stopped when he convinced one of the blacks that if they didn't get off Price they would soon kill her. Leibowitz called Gilley "a dirty, filthy liar." He argued that it was implausible that Gilley would sit by and witness the gang rape without making an effort to go forward in the train to notify the engineer or a conductor.  The papers called Gilley a stronger witness than Price.  The jurors may have found in Gilley's testimony another reason to convict.  Gilley said that during the fight with the whites the defendants shouted, "All you white sons-of-bitches unload!"  The statement hardly establishes rape, of course, but it may have been reason enough for white Alabama jurors to find the defendants guilty.

Gilley was, by all accounts, a charming and entertaining witness.  Historian James Goodman, in his book Stories of Scottsboro, described Gilley as "the smiling, blue-eyed, radar-eared, almost handsome twenty-year-old who insisted he was not (as the defense portrayed him) a bought witness and a bum, but rather a wandering entertainer, a poet of hotel lobbies, restaurants, and the streets."  Gilley even offered to share some of his poetry in the courtroom, but Judge Callahan dourly said "I don't like poetry."

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