Powell v. Alabama 1932

views updated

Powell v. Alabama 1932

Petitioners: Ozzie Powell, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Olen Montgomery, Haywood Patterson, Charley Weems and Clarence Norris

Respondent: State of Alabama

Petitioner's Claim: The Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel for criminal defendants includes the effective help of counsel at the critical stages of investigation and preparation before the trial.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Walter H. Pollack

Chief Lawyer for Respondents: Thomas E. Knight, Jr.

Justices for the Court: Louis D. Brandeis, Benjamin N. Cardozo, Charles Evans Hughes, Owen Josephus Roberts, Harlan Fiske Stone, George Sutherland Willis Van Devanter

Justices Dissenting: Pierce Butler, James Clark McReynolds

Date of Decision: November 7, 1932

Decision: That the right to the effective assistance of an attorney applies even before the trial.

Significance: The Scottsboro trials gave the American public insight into the prejudices and procedures of Southern courts in their treatment of blacks and other minorities. This case was the first time that the United States Supreme Court interpreted the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution and its guaranty to a criminal defendant of "the Assistance of Counsel for his defense". The Court decided this meant "effective" assistance of counsel.

On March 25, 1931, seven young white men entered a railroad stationmaster's office in northern Alabama. They claimed that while they were riding the rails, a "bunch of Negroes" picked a fight with them and threw them off the train. The stationmaster phoned ahead to the next station, near Scottsboro, Alabama. A Scottsboro deputy sheriff made deputies of every man in town with a gun. When the train stopped, the posse (group of people legally authorized keep the peace) rounded up nine young black men and two young white women. The women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, were dressed in men's caps and overalls.

The deputy sheriff tied the black youths together and started questioning them. All of them were from other states. Five of them were from Georgia. Twenty-year-old Charlie Weems was the oldest. Clarence Norris was nineteen. Ozie Powell was sixteen. Olin Montgomery, seventeen, was blind in one eye and had only 10 percent of his vision in the other eye. Willie Roberson, seventeen, suffered from the sexually-transmitted diseases syphilis and gonorrhea, which made him walk with a cane. The other four boys were from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Haywood Patterson and Andy Wright were nineteen. Eugene Williams was thirteen. Wright's brother, Roy, was twelve. None of them could read.

Accused of Rape

As the deputy sheriff loaded his prisoners onto an open truck, one of the women, Ruby Bates, spoke up. She told the deputy sheriff that she and her friend had been raped by the nine black youths.

In Scottsboro, the sheriff sent the women off to be examined by two doctors. Meanwhile, news of the rape had spread throughout the county. By nightfall, a mob of several hundred people stood before the Scottsboro jail, promising to lynch (hang) the prisoners. The sheriff, barricaded inside with twenty-one deputies, called the governor. The governor sent out twenty-five National Guardsmen, but by the time they arrived at the jail, the crowd had given up and drifted away.

The First Trial Begins

Only a few days after their arrest, their trial began on April 6, 1931, with the National Guard keeping a crowd of several thousand people at bay only 100 feet away from the courthouse. On the trial date, Judge Alfred E. Hawkins offered the job of defending the nine black youths to any attorney in the room who would take it. He selected Tennessee attorney Stephen R. Roddy, who volunteered but had not had an opportunity to prepare a defense and admitted he did not know much about Alabama law. A local attorney, Milo Moody offered to assist him with the trials. The defendants were tried in three separate trials.

Prosecutor H. G. Bailey tried Norris and Weems first. Victoria Price described how she and Ruby Bates had gone to Chattanooga to look for jobs. When they found none, they hopped freight trains to go home. After the black boys had thrown the whites off the train, Price said that the blacks turned on the women. She described how she was "beaten up" and "bruised up" as she was repeatedly raped until she lost consciousness.

Dr. R. R. Bridges examined the girls after the incident. He testified that he saw no evidence of violence when he examined the girls. A second doctor agreed and noted that both girls showed signs of having had sexual intercourse, it had occurred at least twelve hours before his physical examination.

Nonetheless, all of the defendants except twelve-year-old Roy Wright were found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Due to Roy Wright's age, the prosecution had asked for a life sentence for him rather than the death penalty. In spite of this request, seven of the jurors wanted to give Roy the death penalty. The judge was forced to declare a mistrial.

A Legal Lynching

A nationwide dispute arose as the news of the trials spread around the country. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the United States called the sentences "legal lynching" and called the defendants the "victims of 'capitalist justice.'" Its International Labor Defense (ILD) section pushed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to push the case through the legal system to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Harlem (a part of New York City), 300,000 people marched in the streets with the slogan "The Scottsboro Boys Shall Not Die."

The ILD hired a famous Chattanooga lawyer George W. Chamlee. He and his co-counsel, Joseph Brodsky, asked for a new trial for the Scottsboro boys. To support this request, they showed the court sworn statements from Chattanooga blacks. These statements alleged that Victoria Price had been seen "embracing Negro men in dances in Negro houses," and that Ruby Bates had bragged that she could "take five Negroes in one night and that Victoria had rented a room for prostitution." The local press declared these statements false, but a Huntsville detective confirmed that both women were prostitutes.

"You Can't Mix Politics with Law"

The court refused to give the boys a new trial. Nationally celebrated attorney Clarence Darrow turned down the NAACP's request that he argue the appeal all the way up to the Supreme Court. "You can't mix politics with law," he said, adding that eventually the cases would have to be won in an Alabama trial. After that, the NAACP withdrew its support.

In March, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the convictions of all but Eugene Williams. As a juvenile, he was granted a new trial. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that seven of the defendants had been denied due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment due to the belated and casual treatment of the appointment of their attorneys by Judge Hawkins. The Court noted that until the very morning of trial no lawyer had been named to represent the defendants. The Court concluded that during the most critical time of the trial, from their arraignment to the start of the trial, the defendants were without the aid of any attorney. They were entitled to legal advice, a thorough investigation and most important preparation. The Supreme Court found that it was the duty of the trial court to give the defendants a reasonable time and chance to hire attorneys or to appoint counsel under such circumstances which prevents counsel from giving effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case. This failure of the trial court was a clear denial of their right to due process of law.

For the retrial, the ILD turned to noted New York criminal lawyer Samuel Leibowitz. Claiming that the defendants could not get a fair trial in Scottsboro, Leibowitz succeeded in having the trial transferred to Decatur, Alabama, before Judge James Edward Horton, Jr. Haywood Patterson was tried first. Leibowitz produced several surprises. Bates took back her earlier testimony, saying she had lied to avoid being arrested. The arresting posse had found the defendants in several different cars of the forty-two-car train. Willie Roberson's medical condition made it impossible for him to engage in sexual activity, and Olin Montgomery's blindness also made him an unlikely rapist. Victoria Price, who was married, had been convicted and served time for other sex related crimes.

Dr. Bridges repeated his testimony that neither girl had been raped. The second doctor, Marvin Lynch, privately told Judge Horton that he had confronted the girls with the fact that they knew they had not been raped "and they just laughed at me." But, he added, if he testified for the boys, "I'd never be able to go back into Jackson County." The judge believed the defense would prove Patterson innocent, so he said nothing.

Defense attorney Leibowitz now lived with National Guardsmen to protect him against threats of lynching. Prosecutor Wade Wright added to the tense atmosphere when he told the jury, "Show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York."

The jury found Patterson guilty and he was sentenced to death. Judge Horton granted a new trial based on his review of the evidence. Then, under pressure from Attorney General Thomas Knight, he withdrew from the case.

Another New Trial

Opening the new trial, Judge William Washington Callahan, dismissed the National Guard and banned cameras from inside and outside the courtroom. He rejected Leibowitz's motion to dismiss Patterson's indictment because no blacks were on the jury list. He ran twelve-hour days in the courtroom. He refused to allow in testimony about Victoria Price's sexual activities in two nights before the train ride. When he gave the jury its instructions on the law, he told them that any intercourse between a black man and a white woman was rape. Until Leibowitz reminded him, Judge Callahan neglected to give the jury instructions on how to acquit the defendant if he was found not guilty.

Again Patterson was found guilty and sentenced to death. Next Clarence Norris was found guilty. Leibowitz discovered that two ILD attorneys were caught trying to bribe Price to change her testimony. The ILD attorneys told Leibowitz that a changed story would be "good for their cause." Furious, Leibowitz threatened to withdraw from the case "unless all Communists are removed from the defense." Attorney Brodsky withdrew.

Supreme Court Overturns Convictions Again

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned all the convictions under the equal protection clause of the Constitution because the state of Alabama excluded African Americans from all juries at the time. In November 1935, a grand jury of thirteen whites and one black brought new indictments. At his fourth trial, in January 1936, a jury again found Patterson guilty. Sentenced this time to seventy-five years in jail, he said, "I'd rather die."

The next trial was delayed until July 1937. Clarence Norris was found guilty and sentenced him to death. Then Andy Wright was found guilty and received ninety-nine years in jail. Charlie Weems was declared guilty and given seventy-five years' imprisonment. The charges against Ozie Powell were dropped in exchange for his guilty plea to stabbing a deputy sheriff. He was sentenced to twenty years. After these convictions, prosecutor Thomas Lawson, suddenly dropped the charges against Olin Montgomery, Roy Wright, Willie Roberson, and Eugene Williams.

All Guilty or All Free

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review Patterson's conviction. Alabama Governor Bibb Graves, asked to pardon the four convicted Scottsboro boys, agreed that "all were guilty or all should be freed." However, after setting a date for the pardon, he changed his mind.

Weems was freed in November 1943. Wright and Norris were released from jail in January 1944 on parole. They were sent back to prison after they broke the terms of their parole by moving north. Wright was paroled again in 1950. Patterson escaped from prison in 1948. He was arrested in Detroit, but Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams refused a request to send him back to Alabama. Patterson was later convicted of manslaughter. He died of cancer in prison in 1952. Alabama Governor George Wallace pardoned Norris at the age of 64 in 1976.

Suggestions for further reading

Carter, Dan T. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

Goodman, James. E. Stories of Scottsboro. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

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

Nash, Jay Robert. Encyclopedia of World Crime. Wilmette, IL: CrimeBooks, Inc., 1990.

Patterson, Haywood. Scottsboro Boy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1950.

Reynolds, Quentin. Courtroom. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1950.