Lexis Nexis - Case Brief

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Law School Case Brief

Coleman v. Alabama - 399 U.S. 1, 90 S. Ct. 1999 (1970)


The fact that, in cases where the accused has no lawyer at the hearing, the courts prohibit the State's use at trial of anything that occurred at the hearing, does not mean that a preliminary hearing is not a critical stage of the state's criminal process. The determination whether the hearing is a critical stage requiring the provision of counsel depends upon an analysis whether potential substantial prejudice to defendant's rights inheres in the confrontation and the ability of counsel to help avoid that prejudice. Plainly, the guiding hand of counsel at the preliminary hearing is essential to protect the indigent accused against an erroneous or improper prosecution.


After trial in an Alabama circuit court, defendants John Henry Coleman and Otis Stephens were convicted of assault with intent to murder. Prior to the trial, defendants, without the presence of counsel, appeared in a police lineup, were required to say words used by one of the attackers, and were identified by the victim. Later, defendants were not provided with counsel at a preliminary hearing; preliminary hearings were not a required step in an Alabama prosecution. At trial, the State did not use anything that occurred at the preliminary hearing. Court of Appeals of Alabama affirmed defendants' convictions, rejecting defendants' claims that the conduct of the lineup was so conducive to irreparable misidentification as to fatally taint the victim's in-court identifications of defendants, and that since the preliminary hearing was a critical stage of the prosecution, the failure to provide defendants with appointed counsel unconstitutionally denied them assistance of counsel. The Supreme Court of Alabama denied review. Defendants were granted a writ of certiorari.


Were defendants improperly denied counsel at their preliminary hearing?




The Supreme Court of the United States vacated defendants' convictions and remanded the case to the state court with instructions to determine whether the denial of counsel at petitioners' preliminary hearing constituted harmless error and whether the convictions should be reinstated or a new trial ordered. The Court held that the facts that Coleman was the only member of the lineup wearing a hat and that all of the members of the lineup were not asked to speak did not make the lineup impermissibly suggestive. However, defendants were entitled to counsel in all critical phases of the proceeding. Although Alabama law prohibited the use at trial of anything that defendants could have said at the preliminary hearing, the hearing was still a critical phase. The Court reasoned that it was a critical phase because the State was required to show probable cause, and if counsel were present, counsel could have been able to disprove probable cause as well as develop evidence.

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