Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45; 53 S. Ct. 55; 77 L. Ed. 158 (1932)

Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45; 53 S. Ct. 55; 77 L. Ed. 158 (1932)

Facts—Petitioners, nine African American youths, were indicted for the rape of two white girls. A jury tried them six days after the day they were arrested, amidst an atmosphere of tense, hostile public sentiment. They were not represented by counsel or asked if they desired counsel; the judge simply appointed “all members of the bar” to defend them. The jury returned the death penalty. This was affirmed on appeal although the chief justice of the state supreme court strongly dissented, claiming an unfair trial.

Questions—(a) Did the state deny petitioners the right of counsel? (b) If so, did such denial infringe the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Decisions—(a) Yes; (b) Yes.

ReasonsJ. Sutherland (7–2). The basic elements comprising due process of law according to the Constitution are notice and hearing (preliminary steps) together with a legally competent tribunal having jurisdiction of the case. A hearing includes the right and aid of counsel when so desired. The ordinary layman, even the intelligent and educated layman, is not skilled in the science of law and needs the advice and direction of competent counsel. These youths were in effect denied the right to counsel. They were transients and all lived in other states, yet were given no chance to communicate with members of their families to obtain counsel. Further, the trial was carried out with such dispatch that they were accorded no time to prepare a defense employing a counsel of their own choice.

“In the light of . . . the ignorance and illiteracy of the defendants, their youth, the circumstances of public hostility, the imprisonment, and the close surveillance of the defendants by the military forces, the fact that their friends and families were all in other states and communications with them necessarily difficult, and above all that they stood in deadly peril of their lives—we think the failure of the trial courts to give them reasonable time and opportunity to secure counsel was a clear denial of due process.”

J. Butler, dissenting, argued that the record in this case did not substantiate claims that the right to counsel had been denied.

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