Powell v. Alabama

On March 25, 1931, a fight broke out between a group of poor white and black youths aboard a freight train bound for Memphis, Tennessee via Huntsville, Alabama.   Outnumbered, all but one of the white young men was thrown off the train a short distance over the Alabama line, where they promptly alerted local law enforcement.  Wires were sent to detain the train near the town of Scottsboro, where the nine black youths were arrested.  Two white females in their early twenties, fearing punishment for catching a free ride on the train and society’s reprisal for associating with non-white males, told the Sheriff they had been raped by the boys.  Twelve days later, the trial of the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” commenced.

On the day their trials were to begin, there were no attorneys yet identified to represent the young men.  A Chattanooga real estate attorney volunteered to assist any Alabama lawyer the court might appoint – though he had never tried a criminal case, was not admitted to the Alabama Bar, and was completely unfamiliar with Alabama law.  The judge "had appointed all the members of the bar for the purpose of arraigning the defendants," but because he did not want to impose on the local attorneys he was not willing to appoint any specific attorney to defend the young men.  Instead, he asked for volunteers.  A local, elderly attorney -- who had not tried a case in decades -- offered to do whatever he could to assist the Tennessee lawyer during the trials, which began immediately. 

Neither attorney was to be paid for their work.  Though the defense attorneys knew almost nothing about the facts of the case or their clients, they did not move to postpone the trial to allow for a thorough investigation.  The prosecution chose to try the defendants in three groups, and the defense attorneys did not object.  This despite the prejudice such a tactic would cause each individual defendant; as if such random groupings eliminated the ethical conflicts of having the same two unqualified lawyers representing all of the nine co-defendants.

The trials lasted a cumulative total of three days.  Defense counsel called their clients and the other defendants to testify without any consultation or preparation, offered wholly unprepared cross-examination of the prosecution experts, and failed to even make a closing argument.  The youngest of the boys -- a 12-year old named Roy White -- received life imprisonment in an adult correctional facility without the possibility of parole.  The others were all sentenced to death.

With the assistance of volunteer private counsel, the Scottsboro Boys’ cases were eventually appealed to the United States Supreme Court.  In Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932), the Court reversed the convictions, finding that the inadequate representation had violated the rights of the Scottsboro Boys to due process in violation of the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution.  The ruling established the right to counsel as an “immutable principle[] of justice” that inheres “in the very idea of free government which no member of the Union may disregard.”  Though the Court’s ruling was limited to the specific circumstances of the defendants in the case, and in particular that this was a death penalty case, the legal rationale of Powell became the constitutional foundation for every subsequent case extending the scope of the right to counsel in America.

Many of the standards for public defense systems promulgated today seek to address the structural deficiencies manifested in the Scottsboro Boys’ story.  Discussing the propriety of the state court judge's involvement in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, the U.S. Supreme Court remarked: “[H]ow can a judge, whose functions are purely judicial, effectively discharge the obligations of counsel for the accused?  He can and should see to it that, in the proceedings before the court, the accused shall be dealt with justly and fairly.  He cannot investigate the facts, advise and direct the defense, or participate in those necessary conferences between counsel and accused which sometimes partake of the inviolable character of the confessional.”  The independence of the defense function is the first of the American Bar Association’s Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System.

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Publication Date: 2010