Anniversary of Powell v. Alabama: Due Process Requirements of Trial, Appointed Counsel and Adequate Time

Today marks the 85th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of Powell v. Alabama[1]. Powell[2] is one of the cases in which the Supreme Court laid out the basic due process requirements of a fair trial in state courts including right to effective appointed counsel in capital offenses, fair time to prepare for trial, and fair hearing. This case proved to be a monumental move for the Supreme Court, which signaled a progressive shift to expanding constitutional rights for defendants in criminal trials.


The Case[3]

The case behind the monumental decision of the Supreme Court required a monumental remedy. On March 25th, 1931, a fight broke out aboard a freight train between a group of poor black and white youth who both had not paid for the ride. All but one of the white youths was thrown from the train just over the Alabama state line, and these boys promptly reported the incident to local law enforcement. The nine-black youths Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson[4], Andrew (Andy) Wright, Leroy (Roy) Wright and Eugene Williams were detained when they reached the town of Scottsboro Alabama[5].

Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, two women who had also not paid for their tickets on the train told the police officers that the youths had raped them. Thus, the nightmare began. The Scottsboro Boys[6], as they would come to be known were each charged with rape. At the time, rape was a capital offense in Alabama. Trial began within two weeks. On the day of trial, no lawyers had been appointed to the Scottsboro boys. The boys and men ranging in age of 12 to 20 had not been given a chance to speak to an attorney, family, or friends, nor allowed to prepare their case. Their cases were separated into 3 trials of three defendants each which took place over the course of three days. Indignant people demonstrated and protested outside the packed courthouse, and the Scottsboro boys were told that their safety could not be guaranteed from the angry mob outside the courthouse which was calling to lynch them. The mob was so large that the Sheriff had to call the national guard.

The judge announced that the Scottsboro boys had no counsel, but he would continue the trial if no lawyer would take the case. A Chattanooga Tennessee real estate lawyer volunteered to help any appointed Alabama lawyer. No local Alabama attorney would take the case, but finally an elderly Alabama attorney who had not preformed a trial in decades volunteered. The trial proceeded immediately. The lawyers put each of the defendants on the stand without preparation, did not perform any cross-examination, and failed to make any closing statements. The only witnesses called by the defense were the doctors who examined the women who testified that they had found no evidence of rape.

The jury sentenced all of the Scottsboro boys to death except for 12-year old Roy Wright who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After the conviction, and the Scottsboro boys received competent legal counsel they moved for a new trial arguing that their 14th amendment due process right to a fair trial had been violated by the circumstances of their conviction and that their 6th amendment right to counsel had been violated by the ineffective counsel that had been appointed for them. The Alabama Supreme Court in a 7 – 2 decision held that the Scottsboro boys had received a fair trial and had been appointed counsel. Alabama Chief Justice John C. Anderson wrote a blistering dissent against the unconstitutional nature of the trial that had been conducted. The Scottsboro boys then sought their first writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court in 1932.

The Arguments

The Supreme Court heard arguments on October 10th, 1932. The Scottsboro boys argued that their 14th amendment right to due process by the State was violated by failing to appoint counsel, failing to allow them to speak with anyone before trial, and failing to secure their safety from the lynch mob outside the courthouse.

The State argued that they had complied with Alabama law by giving the defendants appointed counsel for a capital case, and had given the defendants a fair trial.

The Decision

The Supreme Court rendered its judgment on November 7th, 1932. In a 7 – 2 decision the Majority led by Justice George Sutherland[7] reversed and remanded the Scottsboro boy’s conviction. The Court reasoned that the defendants had been denied a fair trial by not being given an opportunity to speak to their family, or an attorney before trial. The Court also lambasted the court for failing to appoint adequate counsel, and that failure was so great that the judge had effectively denied due process to the defendants. The Court went on to place the violation on the 14th amendment due process clause, rather than the 6th amendment right to counsel. The Court then held that due process required that counsel be appointed in capital cases, and counsel be given adequate time to prepare a defense for trial.

Justice Pierce Butler[8], joined by the reviled[9] Justice James C. McReynolds[10] dissented. The minority argued that the defendants had not been denied the right to counsel as they had been appointed two attorneys.


With the convictions reversed, the Scottsboro boys received a new trial. The judge allowed the trial to change venue to Decatur Alabama[11]. During the retrial, one of the women recanted the allegation and said she and the other woman had fabricated the allegation to avoid social ridicule for being a white woman associated with a black man. The Jury again found the defendants guilty and sentenced them to death, but the judge set aside the verdict and ordered a new trial. At the third trial the judge was replaced, and the jury once again found the defendants guilty and sentenced them to death. The case was appealed again to the Supreme Court in the case of Norris v. Alabama[12][13], where they reversed the conviction for excluding African-Americans from the jury. The unanimous Court led by Chief Justice Charles E. Hughes[14] also admonished the state for continuing to pursue the case. Interestingly, Justice McReynolds took no part in the consideration of the case[15].


Charges were then dropped against 5 of the 9-people involved, and the fourth trial resulted in convictions for the remaining 4 with sentences ranging from 75 years to death. One of the men was shot and paralyzed by an accidental discharge from a prison guard. Two of the men escaped prison in 1946 and were later caught on other charges. The oldest member, Clarence Norris, and the only remaining defendant facing death jumped parole and escaped before being recaptured and pardoned by Alabama Governor George Wallace. The last surviving defendant died in 1989. Alabama posthumously pardoned three of the defendants who had not been pardoned or had their convictions overturned on November 21st, 2013.

While this case became symbolic of the systematic racial biases that existed in the southern criminal justice system, it also became a landmark for reforming it. Powell signaled the Supreme Courts willingness to set down and expanded concrete Constitutional criminal procedure rights. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can ensure your rights to a fair trial are protected.

Written by Hunter J. White

[1] Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 53 S. Ct. 55 (1932)











[12] Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587, 55 S. Ct. 579 (1935)