"Committed Rape" struck from lynching victim's death certificate

Wednesday, October 27, 2010 | 2:57 p.m. CDT; updated 9:34 a.m. CDT, Thursday, October 28, 2010

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Bureau of Vital Records.

COLUMBIA — For 87 years the death certificate bore the words "Committed Rape" as a secondary cause of death.

But it was only six months ago that Columbia resident Scott Wilson learned of the public homicide of a man killed for a crime he was not convicted of — a Columbia mob lynched James Scott, a black man, in 1923 after he was accused of assaulting a white girl.

Wilson, a local independent producer, decided the lack of due process reflected in the death certificate was not something he could ignore and sought legal help to remove the words "Committed Rape" from the certificate.

Wilson's success was possible with a collaboration between Boone and Callaway counties medical examiners, the Missouri Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Records* and the Missouri State Archives.

The words "Committed Rape" are crossed out on the original document and replaced with "Never tried or convicted of rape." Scott's primary cause of death now reads "Asphyxia due to hanging by lynching by assailants."

"It's a lie no longer," Wilson said. "It's been corrected."

Associate Medical Examiner Michael Panella, local attorney Gary Stamper and Wilson met in September to discuss how to change the record.

Panella said he saw the project as a way to promote justice in the community. He worked with colleagues Dori Burke and Carl Stacy at the medical examiner's office to begin the process.

It started with an affidavit suggesting the changes. The affidavit was submitted to the Department of Health Bureau of Vital Records, which had the original 1923 document pulled from the Missouri State Archives.

The Department of Health Bureau of Vital Records crossed out the words and added the new ones. Once the changes were made, the document was returned to the state archives where it was rescanned into the system and made available for the public to view.

Panella said the process required constant communication among the different groups but all worked together as a team.

"Everyone knew the importance of this for the community," Panella said. "They wanted to see justice done."

The original document was changed instead of redone because it is a public record. Once a document is filed and becomes public record, only a court order can completely change or remove that document, Panella said.

Panella said the group discovered, with the help of Stamper's legal expertise, that a person of significant standing to Scott, such as a relative, would be needed to get a court order.

But Panella said they also felt that making changes to the original document was appropriate to re-emphasize to future generations the words that were once on the certificate, convey the graphic nature of the crime and honor history.

The document can be viewed on the state archives website.

Wilson said seeing the changes was a special moment. When Wilson received a copy of the revised death certificate, he took the document to Kinko's and had it enlarged. He's not sure what he'll do with it — perhaps frame it and hang it up in his office, he said.

He still hopes to someday film the James Scott story in narrative style. He's not sure whether the film would be a documentary or a drama but he said he is sure of one thing — he has a unique story that spans from 1923 to 2010.

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