Powell v. Alabama

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Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 53 S. Ct. 55, 77 L. Ed. 158 (1932), is a watershed case in criminal law. The Powell case marked the first time that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a state court conviction because the lower court failed to appoint counsel or give the defendants an opportunity to obtain counsel.

On March 25, 1931, nine young black men were traveling on a freight train through Alabama. Haywood Patterson, Eugene Williams, and brothers Roy and Andy Wright were friends, having grown up together in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ozie Powell, Olen Montgomery, Charley Weems, Willie Roberson, and Clarence Norris all hailed from different parts of Georgia. Also on the train were seven white men and two white women.

During the ride a fight broke out, and six of the seven white men were thrown off the train. The train stopped near Scottsboro, Alabama, and a sheriff's posse comprised of private citizens seized the young black men. The white females, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, claimed that they had been raped. The bewildered black youths were roped together, herded into a truck, and driven to Scottsboro, the Jackson County seat. That night, an unruly mob demanded to lynch the youths, but Sheriff M. L. Wann kept them safe.

The youths were indicted on charges of rape on March 31, 1931. They were arraigned the same day in the Jackson County Circuit Court, where they entered pleas of not guilty. Although they faced rape charges, a capital offense at the time, they were held without an opportunity to communicate with the outside world, and no attorney came to see them. Most of the defendants were illiterate, and none had even a rudimentary knowledge of criminal law.

The court ordered that the defendants be tried in groups, with four trials in all. The trials began on April 6, 1931, just six days after the indictments were entered and less than two weeks after the defendants were arrested. The gallery in the courtroom was packed with spectators. Outside the courtroom, a parade band supplied by the Ford Motor Company played popular tunes for the thousands who could not get a seat in the gallery.

At the beginning of the first trial, Judge Alfred E. Hawkins asked the defendants if they were ready to proceed to trial. Although Hawkins previously had ordered members of the local bar to assist the defendants, no attorney answered for the defendants except Scottsboro lawyer Milo Moody and Stephen Roddy, a lawyer from Chattanooga. Moody was 70 years old. Roddy was not a member of the Alabama bar or a criminal defense attorney, and he was unfamiliar with the court rules and laws of Alabama.

Roddy and Judge Hawkins engaged in a murky exchange that made only two things clear: the defendants had not seen an attorney until the day of trial, and they would not be receiving effective representation in their capital trials. Roddy represented the defendants in a perfunctory fashion, and the court excluded evidence helpful to the defendants. Each trial lasted less than one day, and to the noisy delight of onlookers, eight of the nine defendants were convicted and sentenced to death. Only 13-year-old Roy Wright was spared: his case ended in a mistrial when the jury held out for the death penalty, which could not be enforced against a juvenile.

The convictions sparked a national debate over the fairness of the proceedings. The defendants came to be called the "Scottsboro Boys," and the U.S. Communist Party led the cause to free them. After their convictions, the youths were represented by George W. Chamlee Sr. and Joseph R. Brodsky from the International Labor Defense, an organization dominated by Communists. On appeal to the Supreme Court of Alabama, Chamlee and Brodsky argued that the defendants had not received fair trials for various reasons. Specifically, Chamlee and Brodsky argued that the convictions should be reversed because the crowd outside the courthouse had influenced the jurors, the juries in Alabama contained no black persons, and the defendants had not received adequate legal representation. The Supreme Court of Alabama reversed the conviction of Eugene Williams on the grounds that he may have been a juvenile and should have been tried as one, but the court affirmed the other seven convictions. On March 24, 1932, the Supreme Court of Alabama ordered that the seven defendants be put to death by electrocution on August 31, 1932. The executions were postponed when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the appeals.

In a 7–2 decision delivered on November 7, 1932, the Court reversed all seven convictions. Justice george sutherland, writing for the majority, began the opinion by recounting the procedural history of the case and reciting the paltry and sometimes inaccurate record of the case. Sutherland noted that the record indicated that the defendants had been represented by counsel at the arraignment, "But no counsel having been employed … the record does not disclose when, or under what circumstances, an appointment of counsel was made, or who was appointed." Sutherland also referred to the mob surrounding the defendants. Sutherland wrote that "it does not appear that the defendants were seriously threatened with …mob violence; but it does appear that the attitude of the community was one of great hostility." Although the intimidating atmosphere played a part in the opinion, the Supreme Court was more concerned with the procedures employed by the trial court.

Judge Hawkins had appointed the entire bar of Scottsboro to represent the defendants, but he did not require the attorneys to accept the case. Sutherland quoted the colloquy between Hawkins and Roddy that occurred just before the trial, which revealed that no attorney was prepared to take the case. Nevertheless, Hawkins allowed the trials to go forward, "and in this casual fashion," Sutherland lamented, "the matter of counsel in a capital case was disposed of."

Sutherland began the Court's legal analysis by declaring that, although the defendants may have appeared guilty, they were nonetheless presumed to be innocent. Sutherland then proceeded to frame the issue in the case as whether the defendants were denied the assistance of counsel and, if so, whether such a denial was an infringement of their rights under the fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the amendment that makes due process requirements applicable to the states.

Sutherland concluded that states were obliged under the Constitution to provide the right to an attorney in a criminal case and that the right had not been extended to the defendants. Sutherland cited Supreme Court precedent for the proposition that due process can be determined by ascertaining "what were the settled usages and modes of proceeding under the common and statute law of England before the Declaration of Independence." He then examined the history of the criminal defendant's right to an attorney and concluded that such a right did not exist in England until the mid-nineteenth century, that the English rule was assailed by legal analysts in England and rejected by 12 of the 13 colonies, and that it was a necessary incident to due process of law. The denial of counsel, Sutherland declared, "is so outrageous and so obviously a perversion of all sense of proportion that the rule was constantly, vigorously and sometimes passionately assailed by English statesmen and lawyers."

Sutherland still had to make the requirement of counsel applicable to the states. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 forbid states to "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," but it remained for the court to determine precisely what procedures constituted due process. Quoting Hebert v. State of Louisiana, 272 U.S. 312, 47 S. Ct. 103, 71 L. Ed. 270 (1926), Sutherland explained that due process was required if a right was "of such a character that it cannot be denied without violating those 'fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions.'"

Sutherland noted that it was well established that due process in a criminal case necessarily included an opportunity to be heard. Such an opportunity could not be achieved even by intelligent laypersons.

Having established that the right to an attorney was a fundamental due process right applicable to the states, Sutherland applied the law to the facts of the case. The defendants were held incommunicado and prevented from obtaining counsel of their own choice. Sutherland declared that because of

the ignorance and illiteracy of the defendants, their youth, the circumstances of public hostility, the imprisonment, and close surveillance of the defendants by military forces, the fact that their friends and families were all in other states and communication with them necessarily difficult, and above all [because] they stood in deadly peril of losing their lives—we think the failure of the trial court to give them reasonable time and opportunity to secure counsel was a clear denial of due process.

The failure of the trial court to appoint counsel was likewise a denial of due process. Hawkins had made an attempt to appoint attorneys, but it was a feeble one. Sutherland declared that the attorneys were not "given that clear appreciation of responsibility or impressed with that individual sense of duty which should and naturally would accompany the appointment of a selected member of the bar."

The Powell holding declared that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required that state courts give defendants an opportunity to obtain counsel. It also created the rule that due process requires state courts to appoint counsel for indigent defendants in all capital cases and that a free attorney for indigent defendants in noncapital cases is required if an unfair trial would result without the appointment. Powell was used as precedent for other Supreme Court decisions expanding the right to counsel, as well as decisions establishing that the legal representation defendants receive should not fall below a minimum standard of effectiveness.

The defendants were retried again and again after the Supreme Court reversed their convictions. In 1935, the High Court again intervened in the prosecutions, reversing the convictions based on the fact that there were no blacks on the jury rolls (Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587, 55 S. Ct. 579, 79 L. Ed. 1074 [1935]).

In 1937, four of the defendants were released, but the other five defendants remained in prison. Each eventually gained release through either parole or escape. In 1976, Alabama officials took a new look at the case, and Governor george wallace pardoned Clarence Norris. Norris, the last surviving defendant, had violated his parole by fleeing Alabama and had been at large for more than 30 years.

further readings

Geimer, William S. 1995. "A Decade of Strickland's Tin Horn: Doctrinal and Practical Undermining of the Right to Counsel." William and Mary Law Review 4.

Goodman, James. 1994. Stories of Scottsboro: The Rape Case That Shocked 1930's America and Revived the Struggle for Equality. New York: Pantheon Books.

Haskins, James. 1994. The Scottsboro Boys. New York: Holt.

Horne, Gerald. 1997. Powell v. Alabama: The Scottsboro Boys and American Justice. New York: Franklin Watts.

White, Welsh S., and James J. Tomkovicz. 1998. Criminal Procedure: Constitutional Restraints Upon Investigation and Proof. New York: Matthew Bender.


Capital Punishment; Criminal Procedure; Incorporation Doctrine; Fourteenth Amendment; Right to Counsel.