Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Powell v. Alabama

Powell v. Alabama 287 U.S. 45 (1932) was a United States Supreme Court decision which determined that in a capital trial, the defendant must be given access to counsel upon his or her own request as part of due process.

Powell was he first time the Court had reversed a state criminal conviction for a violation of a criminal procedural provision of the United States Bill of Rights. The only prior reversals of state criminal convictions had held that racial segregation in jury selection violated the Equal Protection Clause.

The case stems from events that occurred in March 1931. Nine African Americans — Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, Andrew (Andy) Wright, Leroy (Roy) Wright and Eugene Williams, later known as the Scottsboro Boys, were accused of raping two young white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price.

The group was traveling in a freight train with seven white males and two white females. A fight broke out and all of the white males, except for one, were thrown from the train. The women accused the black men of rape, although one woman later retracted her claim. All of the defendants, except for Roy Wright, were sentenced to death in a series of one-day trials. The defendants were only given access to their lawyers immediately prior to the trial, leaving little or no time to plan the defense. The ruling was appealed on the grounds that the group was not provided adequate legal counsel. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that the trial was fair (the strongly dissenting opinion was from Chief Justice Anderson). This ruling was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The majority opinion reversed and remanded the decisions of the Alabama Supreme Court, holding that due process had been violated. The ruling was based on three main arguments: "(1) They were not given a fair, impartial and deliberate trial; (2) They were denied the right of counsel, with the accustomed incidents of consultation and opportunity for trial; and (3) They were tried before juries from which qualified members of their own race were systematically excluded."

Whether or not the Powell v. Alabama decision applied to non-capital cases sparked heated debate. Betts v. Brady initially decided that, unless there were special circumstances like illiteracy, stupidity or being in an especially complicated trial, there was no need for a court-appointed attorney. That decision was ultimately overturned in Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the right to be provided an attorney in all felony cases."

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