85th Anniversary of Powell v. Alabama, a Case That Changed History

On November 7, 1932, the Supreme Court came to a landmark decision that would change the way in which criminal cases were treated thereafter. In that case, Powell v. Alabama 287 U.S. 45 (1932), the court laid out the basic due process requirements of a fair trial, including the right to effective counsel, adequate time to prepare a case, and a fair hearing. This decision signaled a significant change in the way criminal defendants would be treated in this country from here on out.

The Case That Changed History

It all started on March 25, 1931, with a fight between a group of poor black boys and poor white boys broke out aboard a freight train. Neither group of boys had paid for their tickets, and when the train stopped next, all but one white boy was thrown off just over the Alabama state line. When they got off, the group of white boys promptly informed law enforcement of the incident, and all nine black youths were detained when they reached the town of Scottsboro, Alabama. These nine youth—ranging in age from 12 to 20—would eventually become known as the Scottsboro Boys.

Two women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, who were also thrown off the train for not paying their fare, told police officers that the nine boys had raped them. At the time, rape was a capital offense in Alabama.

Trial began with two weeks of charging the boys with rape and without any of the nine boys ever having been given the chance to speak with an attorney, friends, or family. No attorney had been appointed to defend the boys’ rights. Over the course of three days, three trials were held, during which indignant people stormed the courthouse in the hopes of harming the Scottsboro Boys. The judge’s response to the mob was cavalier; he told the boys something to the effect of, “[your] safety [cannot] be guaranteed from the angry mob outside the courthouse which [is] calling to lynch [you].”

Despite his caustic approach to the angry mob, the judge did call legal counsel for the youth and informed the public that he would continue with the trial without or without a lawyer. Eventually, an elderly Alabama attorney—one from out of the area and who had not practiced law in several decades—volunteered. The trial proceeded without affording the boys any time for preparation. Each was placed on the stand and examined by the prosecutor. The boys’ own attorney did not perform a cross-examination and nor did he provide any closing statements. However, the elderly lawyer did call one witness to the stand - the doctor who examined the two girls. The doctor’s findings? The two women showed no signs of having been raped.

The jury sentenced eight of the nine boys to death; they sentenced 12-year-old Roy Wright to life in prison without the possibility for parole. However, that was not the end of the case.

The Boys Motion for a Retrial

After the conviction, the boys sought and found adequate counsel. They moved for a retrial, arguing that their 14th and 6th amendment rights—the right to a fair trial and the right to counsel—had been violated by the ineffective counsel they were appointed. The Alabama Supreme Court held in a 7-2 decision that the boys had been given a fair trial and that they had been appointed legal counsel, if not effective counsel. However, Alabama Chief Justice John C. Anderson begged to differ, and after some back and forth on the matter, the Supreme Court rendered its decision, which reversed the Scottsboro Boys’ conviction, claiming that the court’s failure to appoint adequate counsel was so great that the judge had effectively denied due process to the defendants.

This occurred on November 7, 1932.

In addition to lambasting the lower court’s decision, the Supreme Court set forth the requirements for due process, namely that counsel must be provided in capital cases and that said counsel will be given sufficient time to prepare for trial.

The decision was a monumental one for the U.S., though it did not do much to help the Scottsboro Boys. Even after one of the “victims” admitted to having fabricated the story, the boys were tried two more times. At the fourth trial, charges against all but four of the boys were dropped. Sadly, the remaining four youth were given sentences ranging from 75 years to death. One of the men was shot and paralyzed by a prison guard. Two escaped but were later caught on other charges. The eldest Scottsboro Boy, Clarence Norris, skipped out on parole, escaped, was recaptured, and eventually pardoned by Governor George Wallace in 1976—45 years after the supposed rape.

The case revealed a huge racial bias in the court of law, but one thing it did accomplish, and one thing that most people overlook, was that it forced the Supreme Court to set down and expand upon Constitutional criminal procedure rights.

Make Sure Your Rights are Protected by Hiring a Fair and Competent Dallas Criminal Attorney

At Clark Law Group, we understand your Constitutional rights better than most, and we will not rest if we sense that they have been violated. As a criminal defendant, you have just as much right to fair trial as anyone else in this country, and when you hire us, that is just what you are going to get. With our aggressive Dallas criminal defense attorneys on your side, you can have peace of mind that your case will be handled competently and effectively. If you have been charged with a crime, reach out to Clark Law Group today at (214) 438-1152 to schedule your private consultation.

(image courtesy of David Hellman)

Categories: