Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932)

2012-08-16 16:29:19

It was not until 1963, in the seminal case of Gideon v. Wainwright, that the Supreme Court finally decided that indigent criminal defendants in state courts had the constitutional right under the Sixth Amendment to have counsel appointed for their defense. But, as far back as 1932, in Powell v. Alabama, the Court decided, under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, that counsel must be appointed for indigent defendants in capital cases and that such counsel had to provide ‘‘effective’’ assistance.

The Powell decision involved the criminal trial of the so-called ‘‘Scottsboro Boys,’’ a prosecution of seven poor, illiterate, black teenagers accused of the gang rape of two teenage white girls on a freight train on its way through Alabama on March 25, 1931. Despite the existence of an Alabama state statute requiring the appointment of counsel in capital cases, no defense counsel was actually appointed for any of the defendants until the morning of trial; then, without any investigation on their behalf and only six days after their indictment, their trials began. Each of these trials was completed within a day, and each resulted in a death sentence for each defendant. In a setting rife with heated racial animosity, as the Court observed, ‘‘the proceedings, from beginning to end, took place in an atmosphere of tense, hostile, and excited public sentiment.’’

A majority of the Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Sutherland, concluded that the denial of counsel in these circumstances violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the Sixth Amendment had not yet been selectively incorporated to apply to the states as it would later be in Gideon, the Court held:

[W]here the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable adequately of making his own defense because of ignorance, feeble-mindedness, illiteracy, or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him as a necessary requisite of due process of law; and that duty is not discharged by an assignment at such a time or under such circumstances as to preclude the giving of effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case.... The prompt disposition of criminal cases is to be commended and encouraged, ... [b]ut, in reaching that result a defendant, charged with a serious crime, must not be stripped of his right to have sufficient time to advise with counsel and prepare his defense. To do that is not to proceed promptly in the calm spirit of regulated justice but to go forward with the haste of the mob.

In addition to the subsequent application of the Sixth Amendment’s ‘‘right to counsel’’ clause to the states in 1963, the Supreme Court also expanded in a 1984 decision, Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), upon the meaning of the requisite ‘‘effective’’ assistance of counsel language used in Powell. In Strickland, the Court concluded that a criminal defendant is denied effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment when he demonstrates that his or her counsel’s performance was deficient in that it fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and that such deficiency prejudiced the defendant by creating a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.


See also Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942); Due Process; Fourteenth Amendment; Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963); Ineffective Assistance of Counsel; Race andCriminal Justice; Right toCounsel; ScottsboroTrials