Powell V. Alabama

287 U.S. 45 (1932)

In 1931, nine young African-American men were riding an empty freight train through Alabama. Seven young white men and two young white women were also on the train. A fight between the group of men ensued and all but one of the white men were thrown from the train. The local sheriff and a group of citizens stopped the train before it reached the town of Scottsboro. The two young white women on the train claimed to have been sexually assaulted by the young African-American men on board. All nine of the young men were taken into custody and none of them was allowed to contact their relatives. Angry mobs gathered outside of the jail and the local sheriff had to call in the Alabama National Guard to restrain the demonstrators.

Six days after their arrests, the �Scottsboro� boys were indicted on rape charges and arraigned. Each of them entered pleas of not guilty. A few days later, the case was called for trial. The trial judge did not appoint any attorney to represent the young men. An out of town attorney appeared for them but informed the court that he could not formally represent them. Ultimately, a local attorney agreed and the trials began.

All nine of the young men were found guilty, despite testimony by doctors that there was no evidence of rape when the women were examined. Eight of the nine men were sentenced to death.

Constitutional Issue
The issue considered by the United States Supreme Court was whether the Constitution requires states to provide counsel to citizens who cannot afford an attorney.

The Court overturned the convictions of the young men, noting that "[n]o attempt was made to investigate. . . . Defendants were immediately hurried to trial." The Court went on to state that a defendant, charged with a serious crime, must not be stripped of his right to have sufficient time to advise with counsel and prepare his defense. To deny that, the Court wrote, "is not to proceed promptly in the calm spirit of regulated justice but to go forward with the haste of the mob."

In ruling that the young men should have had counsel, the Court opined:

"The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. If charged with crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he had a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence. If that be true of men of intelligence, how much more true is it of the ignorant and illiterate, or those of feeble intellect. If in any case, civil or criminal, a state or federal court were arbitrarily to refuse to hear a party by counsel, employed by and appearing for him, it reasonably may not be doubted that such a refusal would be a denial of a hearing, and, therefore, of due process in the constitutional sense."

Further, the Court held that the right to counsel is "one of the fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions." The Court continued, "[w]e think the failure of the trial court to give [the young black men] reasonable time and opportunity to secure counsel was a clear denial of due process. . . . [T]here are certain immutable principles of justice which inhere in the very idea of free government which no member of the Union [no state] may disregard."

With this case, the Court set a precedent: under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, counsel must be guaranteed to every person charged with a capital crime.

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