Powell v. Alabama

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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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

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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...

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