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

Citation:287 U.S. 45, 53 S.Ct. 55, 77 L.Ed. 158
Party Name:Powell v. Alabama
Case Date:November 07, 1932
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 45

287 U.S. 45 (1932)

53 S.Ct. 55, 77 L.Ed. 158

Powell

v.

Alabama

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 7, 1932

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ALABAMA

Syllabus

1. The rule denying the aid of counsel to persons charged with felony, which (except as to legal questions) existed in England

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when our Constitution was formed, was rejected in this country by the Colonies before the Declaration of Independence, and is not a test of whether the right to counsel in such cases is embraced in the guarantee of "due process of law." P. 65.

2. The rule that no part of the Constitution shall be treated as superfluous is an aid to construction which, in some instances, may be conclusive, but which must yield to more compelling considerations whenever they exist. P. 67.

3. The fact that the right of an accused person to have counsel for his defense was guaranteed expressly (as respects the federal Government) by the Sixth Amendment, notwithstanding the presence of the due process clause in the Fifth Amendment, does not exclude that right from the concept "due process of law." Pp. 66-68.

4. The right of the accused, at least in a capital case, to have the aid of counsel for his defense, which includes the right to have sufficient time to advise with counsel and to prepare a defense, is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 68-71.

5. In a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel and is incapable of making his own defense adequately 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 and under such circumstances as to preclude the giving of effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case. P. 71.

6. In a case such as this, the right to have counsel appointed, when necessary, is a logical corollary to the right to be heard by counsel. P. 72.

7. In such circumstances, the trial court has power, even in the absence of statute, to appoint an attorney for the accused, and the attorney, as an officer of the court, is bound to serve. P. 73.

224 Ala. 524, 531, 540, reversed.

CERTIORARI, 286 U.S. 540, to review judgments affirming sentences to death based upon convictions for rape. There was one indictment against these petitioners and two other persons. The petitioners were tried in three groups, as shown in the caption, pursuant to an order of severance obtained by the State.

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SUTHERLAND, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases were argued together and submitted for decision as one case.

[53 S.Ct. 57] The petitioners, hereinafter referred to as defendants, are negroes charged with the crime of rape, committed upon the persons of two white girls. The crime is said to have been committed on March 25, 1931. The indictment was returned in a state court of first instance on March 31, and the record recites that, on the same day, the defendants were arraigned and entered pleas of not guilty. There is a further recital to the effect that, upon the arraignment, they were represented by counsel. But no counsel had been employed, and aside from a statement made by the trial judge several days later during a colloquy immediately preceding the trial, the record does not disclose when, or under what circumstances, an appointment of counsel was made, or who was appointed. During the colloquy referred to, the trial judge, in response to a question, said that he had appointed all the members of the bar for the purpose of arraigning the defendants, and then, of course, anticipated that the members of the bar would continue to help the defendants if no counsel appeared. Upon the argument here, both sides accepted that as a correct statement of the facts concerning the matter.

There was a severance upon the request of the state, and the defendants were tried in three several groups, as indicated above. As each of the three cases was called for trial, each defendant was arraigned, and, having the

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indictment read to him, entered a plea of not guilty. Whether the original arraignment and pleas were regarded as ineffective is not shown. Each of the three trials was completed within a single day. Under the Alabama statute, the punishment for rape is to be fixed by the jury, and, in its discretion, may be from ten years' imprisonment to death. The juries found defendants guilty and imposed the death penalty upon all. The trial court overruled motions for new trials and sentenced the defendants in accordance with the verdicts. The judgments were affirmed by the state supreme court. Chief Justice Anderson thought the defendants had not been accorded a fair trial, and strongly dissented. 224 Ala. 524; id., 531; id., 540, 141 So. 215, 195, 201.

In this court, the judgments are assailed upon the grounds that the defendants, and each of them, were denied due process of law and the equal protection of the laws in contravention of the Fourteenth Amendment, specifically as follows: (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 of preparation for trial, and (3) they were tried before juries from which qualified members of their own race were systematically excluded. These questions were properly raised and saved in the courts below.

The only one of the assignments which we shall consider is the second, in respect of the denial of counsel, and it becomes unnecessary to discuss the facts of the case or the circumstances surrounding the prosecution except insofar as they reflect light upon that question.

The record shows that, on the day when the offense is said to have been committed, these defendants, together with a number of other negroes, were upon a freight train on its way through Alabama. On the same train were seven white boys and the two white girls. A fight took

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place between the negroes and the white boys in the course of which the white boys, with the exception of one named Gilley, were thrown off the train. A message was sent ahead, reporting the fight and asking that every negro be gotten off the train. The participants in the fight, and the two girls, were in an open gondola car. The two girls testified that each of them was assaulted by six different negroes in turn, and they identified the seven defendants as having been among the number. None of the white boys was called to testify, with the exception of Gilley, who was called in rebuttal.

Before the train reached Scottsboro, Alabama, a sheriff's posse seized the defendants and two other negroes. Both girls and the negroes then were taken to Scottsboro, the county seat. Word of their coming and of the alleged assault had preceded them, and they were met at Scottsboro by a large crowd. It does not sufficiently appear that the defendants were seriously threatened with, or that they were actually in danger of, mob violence, but it does appear that the attitude of the community was one of great hostility. The sheriff thought it.necessary to call for the militia to assist in safeguarding the prisoners. Chief Justice Anderson pointed out in his opinion that every step taken from the arrest and arraignment to the sentence was accompanied by the military. Soldiers took the defendants to Gadsden for safekeeping, brought them back to Scottsboro for arraignment, returned them to Gadsden for safekeeping while awaiting trial, escorted them to Scottsboro for trial a few days later, and guarded the courthouse and grounds at every stage of the proceedings. It is perfectly apparent that the proceedings, from beginning to end, took place in an atmosphere of tense, hostile and excited public sentiment. During the entire time, the defendants were closely confined or were under military guard. The record does not disclose their ages, except that one of them [53 S.Ct. 58] was nineteen; but the

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record clearly indicates that most, if not all, of them were youthful, and they are constantly referred to as "the boys." They were ignorant and illiterate. All of them were residents of other states, where alone members of their families or friends resided.

However guilty defendants, upon due inquiry, might prove to have been, they were, until convicted, presumed to be innocent. It was the duty of the court having their cases in charge to see that they were denied no necessary incident of a fair trial. With any error of the state court involving alleged contravention of the state statutes or constitution we, of course, have nothing to do. The sole inquiry which we are permitted to make is whether the federal Constitution was contravened (Rogers v. Peck, 199 U.S. 425, 434; Hebert v. Louisiana, 272 U.S. 312, 316), and as to that, we confine ourselves, as already suggested, to the inquiry whether the defendants were in substance denied the right of counsel, and, if so, whether such denial infringes the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

First. The record shows that, immediately upon the return of the indictment, defendants were arraigned, and pleaded not guilty. Apparently they were not asked whether they had, or were able to, employ counsel, or wished to have counsel appointed, or whether they had friends or relatives who might assist in that regard if communicated with. That it would not have been an idle ceremony to have given the defendants reasonable opportunity to communicate with their families and endeavor to obtain counsel is demonstrated by the fact that, very soon after conviction, able...

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