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Powell v. Alabama

Citation. Powell v. Ala., 287 U.S. 45, 53 S. Ct. 55, 77 L. Ed. 158, 84 A.L.R. 527 (U.S. Nov. 7, 1932)
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Brief Fact Summary.

African-Americans accused of rape were not given adequate counsel.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

“Where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable of making his own defense… 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.”


A group of African-American youths were on a freight train through Alabama. They got into a fight with some white youths, throwing the white boys from the train. A message was sent, requesting all blacks be removed from the train. Two white girls on the train testified that they had been raped by six different youths in turn. The youths were taken into custody. The community was very hostile, as a mob met the youths. The trial judge appointed “all members of the bar” for the purpose of the arraignment. The defendants themselves were illiterate and “ignorant”. They were all tried separately, each trial lasting a day, convicted, and sentenced to death.


Whether the defendants had sufficient counsel.

Whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment had been violated.


No, the “defendants were not accorded the right of counsel in any substantial sense.” The Supreme Court first observed that by appointing “all members of the bar” for the arraignment, “such designation of counsel … was either so indefinite or so close upon the trial as to amount to a denial of effective and substantial aid.” This unknown number of members “would not…have been given that clear appreciation of responsibility or impressed with that individual sense of duty which should and naturally would accompany the appointment of a selected member of the bar.”

The “ignorant” and “illiterate” status of the defendants, coupled with the hostility of community “were…put in peril” within the first moments of representation. Finally, the Court noted that when counsel was in place that “neither [the defense counsel] nor the court could say what a prompt and thoroughgoing investigation might disclose as to facts” as there had been no proper investigation, and no opportunity to do so.

No. Given the hostile circumstances, the illiterate status of the defendants, the close surveillance, their isolation from their families, and that they “stood in deadly peril of their lives,” the failure of the trial court to “give them reasonable time and opportunity to secure counsel was a clear denial of due process.”


“The necessity of counsel [is] so vital and imperative that the failure of the trial court to make an effective appointment of counsel was likewise a denial of due process within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

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