Powell V. Alabama - Historical Background of the Case

Jim Crow's dominance in the South

Jim Crow's dominance in the South of the US had peaked by the middle of the 1930s. In the majority of the nation and the region, racial segregation was still the norm. Due to their strength, the Ku Klux Klan spread fear throughout their strongholds. Social views among Caucasians in the south were growing, with racial segregation as their main objective. Black people were not allowed to vote, occupy public office, or protest Southern injustices during that time.

How did this specific case end up in this court?

On March 25th, 1931, nine young black people hopped on an empty freight train that was heading to Alabama. On the same train, there were seven white boys and two white girls. While on board, a fight ensued between the two groups with the African Americans men managing to throw all the white boys from the train except one known as Gilley. Infuriated, the Caucasian boys decided to send a message to the Scottsboro town to report the incident. Immediately, the local sheriff together with some residents managed to stop the train before its destination. Two young Caucasian women made a testimony that the African American men on board in the train had sexually assaulted them. None of the white boys were called to testify except Gilley whose attention was need during the rebuttal. The nine who were accused were taken into custody. However, when the residents heard about the allegations, they were enraged thereby heading to the jailhouse. And with the sheriff being unable to control them, he decided to seek help from the Alabama National Guard ("Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932)", 2017).

What happened in the lower court?

On March 31st, 1931 during the arraignment of the men, the judge appointed the entire bar members to assist in arraigning the appellants. It was a trial system part whereby formal charges were being heard for the first time. The defendants presented were illiterate thus could demand their right to have an attorney to represent them since none of them understood the law. They were not informed by the court about the importance of hiring a lawyer until briefly before the onset of the trial. Since the judge could not force the local attorneys to assist the men, he failed to appoint any other lawyer thereby asking for volunteers. A real estate lawyer from Chattanooga volunteered to help any Alabama attorney that the court might select even though he had never been involved in a criminal case since he was not admitted to the Alabama Bar and was unfamiliar with the law of Alabama. .An elderly lawyer who also had not tried any case in many years offered to assist ("Powell v. Alabama", 2017). Each of Negroes was tried separately with each trial lasting for only a day. All of them were found guilty by the judge, and according to that period in the US, they could easily receive a death sentence, which they did receive. Under the statute of Alabama, the punishment that rapists were fixed by the jury and in its judgment, it can be an imprisonment of around ten years or even death ("Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932)", 2017). The trial court managed to overrule new trials thereby sentencing the defendants according to the verdicts. Chief Anderson believed that the accused were not given a fair trial thus dissented the whole process.

Who is appealing on what issues?

The defendants appealed to the Alabama Supreme court; nonetheless, they failed. Later on, they appealed to the US Supreme Court. The following charges and criminal activity were cited by Olen Montgomery, Andy Wright, Willie Roberson, and Ozzie Powell against the Alabama state based on the subsequent initial ruling that their Habeas Corpus rights were violated, which entitles every citizen of a right to a fair trial. The defendants also maintained that they were not given their right to acknowledge significant facts concerning the hearing and having an efficient legal representation ("Powell v. Alabama - Cases Laws - USA Laws Searching", 2017).

Constitutional/Legal issues

The question of discussion that the Supreme Court concerned itself with was the due process right of the defendants as provided by the 14th Amendment. Could any person be given a death sentence even without the benefit of an attorney? Must each state in the country offer counsel to its citizens who are unable to afford a lawyer? ("Powell v. Alabama", 2017).

The Court Reasoning and Analysis

Justice Sutherland provided a 7-2 majority opinion that overturned the conviction of the African American men thus ordering a new fair trial to be conducted with the benefit of an attorney selected by the court. The justice also pointed out that no attempt was made by the lower court to investigate the issue since defendants were rushed to trial. The court also noticed that any accused person charged with a severe criminal offense must not be denied his or her right to have sufficient period in getting advice from their counsel and preparing for defense. The court found that the right to an attorney is one of the justice and liberty fundamental principles that lie at the center of our political and civil institutions (Tokarev, 2012). And the letdown of the trial court to deny the African American men reasonable opportunity and time in securing a counsel was a vivid violation of their due process rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment ("Understanding Powell v. Alabama | Sixth Amendment Center", 2017).


The accused were not offered, adequate counsel.

The defendants' rights under the Due Process Clause were rebuffed by the Alabama state trial court thereby not giving them enough time to seek advice from their counsel in assisting them to prepare their defenses.

The US Supreme Court ruled in Powell's favor pointing out that the defendant's rights were violated as per the 14th Amendment since they were offered inadequate legal representation. The court also failed to adhere to the due process ("Powell v. Alabama - Cases Laws - USA Laws Searching", 2017).

Importance of the ruling to social work

The Supreme Court's decision was very significant to the society since it established the importance of every state in America in appointing counsel to every defendant when they are unable to afford one for the fair trial. It also set a model that falls under the 14th Amendment Due Process Rights Clause, which points out that any individual who faces a death sentence must be granted a counsel whether they are in federal or state courts. The decision that was based on "fundamental fairness" continues to guide even our current court cases thus Powell's legacy being critical in our legal system.


Powell v. Alabama - Cases Laws - USA Laws Searching. (2017). Laws9.com. Retrieved 29 November 2017, from http://www.laws9.com/cases/powell-v-alabama.html

Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932). (2017). Justia Law. Retrieved 29 November 2017, from https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/287/45/case.html

Powell v. Alabama. (2017). Nlada.net. Retrieved 29 November 2017, from http://www.nlada.net/library/article/na_powellvalabama

Understanding Powell v. Alabama | Sixth Amendment Center. (2017). Sixthamendment.org. Retrieved 29 November 2017, from http://sixthamendment.org/the-right-to-counsel/history-of-the-right-to-counsel/understanding-powell-v-alabama/

Powell V. Alabama. (2017). Lpdb.la.gov. Retrieved 29 November 2017, from http://lpdb.la.gov/Serving%20The%20Public/Court%20Decisions/Powell%20v.%20Alabama%20(1932).php

Tokarev, S. (2012). "Powell V. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932)." Civil Liberties in the United States. Retrieved 29 November 2017, from http://uscivilliberties.org/cases/4293-powell-v-alabama-287-us-45-1932.html.

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