Powell v. Alabama (1932)

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Historical Background

By the 1930s, the reign of Jim Crow had reached its apex in the South. Segregation of the races remained the norm across the region-and, indeed, across the nation. Discrimination, exacerbated by the devastating effects of the Great Depression, was particularly harsh. A new Ku Klux Klan had arisen in the 1920s, marauding the nation with intimidation and terror. Social attitudes among white people in the South reflected a desire to keep the races “separate,“ to be sure, but far from “equal“ according to the Plessy standard. Few African Americans voted, held public office, or even spoke publicly about abuses in the South.

Circumstances of the Case

Nine young African-American men hopped a ride aboard an empty freight train heading through Alabama. A group of young white men had also hopped aboard for transport through the State. A fight ensued between the groups, and all but one of the young white men were thrown from the train. Enraged, they sent a message ahead to the town of Scottsboro to report the incident. When the local sheriff and a posse of citizens stopped the train before it reached Scottsboro, two young white women testified that they had been sexually assaulted by the young African-American men on board the train.

All nine were taken into custody, and when word of the allegations spread angry crowds gathered around the jailhouse. Unable to restrain the demonstrators or guarantee the safety of the accused, the sheriff called for the Alabama National Guard.

Throughout the proceedings, none of the “Scottsboro“ boys was allowed to contact their relatives, who lived out of State. On the day of the trial, an out-of-town attorney appeared for the defendants but announced that he could not formally represent them. The trial judge called on all the local lawyers present to assume responsibility for defending the nine young men, but only one agreed. The two lawyers had no opportunity to investigate the case or consult with their “clients.“ All nine youths were found guilty by four separate juries, despite testimony from doctors who said they found no evidence of rape upon examining the women. Eight of the nine men received the death penalty. The convictions were appealed through the State courts of Alabama, and failing there, went to the Supreme Court.

Constitutional Issues

The question before the Court regarded the right to legal counsel guaranteed by the 6th Amendment, and how that right was applied to the States by the 14th Amendment. Must States provide counsel to citizens who cannot afford an attorney? Could a citizen be sentenced to death without benefit of counsel? Was the right to counsel so fundamental that the trial could not be fair without an attorney being provided? Was the right to counsel guaranteed in State trials by the 14th Amendment?


For Powell: The Scottsboro trials were a travesty of justice-the accused having been railroaded through a discriminatory system. The young black men's right to counsel was so fundamental to criminal proceedings that any trial conducted without a defense attorney was not a fair trial at all. Alabama's conduct of the trial was unfair-a violation of a basic rule of decency and justice under the Constitution. Justice demanded that the death sentences be overturned and that new trials be ordered.

For Alabama: The right to legal counsel as stated in the 6th Amendment applies only to federal courts. Each State conducts its own criminal justice system, separate from federal authority, under the reserved powers of the Constitution. Alabama has its own bill of rights that recognizes the right of the accused to obtain counsel, but does not require the State to pay for attorneys to defend accused persons. The Supreme Court should not interfere with the internal operation of the State courts and it had never done so in 140 years. Moreover, an attorney defended the accused, but they were all convicted.

Decision and Rationale

Justice Sutherland wrote the 7-2 majority opinion, overturning the convictions of the young black men and requiring that a new trial be held with the benefit of legal counsel appointed by the court. Sutherland wrote “No attempt was made to investigateâ¦. Defendants were immediately hurried to trial. The Court noted 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, Sutherland wrote, “is not to proceed promptly in the calm spirit of regulated justice but to go forward with the haste of the mob.“

The Court found that the right to counsel was one of the “'fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions'⦠We 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 ruling, the Court set a precedent-under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, counsel must be guaranteed to everyone facing a possible death sentence, whether in State or federal court. The Scottsboro case was the beginning of an “incorporation“ into State constitutions of fair trial rights guaranteed by the 6th Amendment. These rights were made applicable to the States by the 14th Amendment.

Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Information Please®, ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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