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Law School Case Brief

Powell v. Alabama - 287 U.S. 45, 53 S. Ct. 55 (1932)


A defendant should be afforded a fair opportunity to secure counsel of his own choice. If in any case, civil or criminal, a state or federal court arbitrarily refuses to hear a party by counsel, employed by and appearing for him, it reasonably may not be doubted that such a refusal would be a denial of a hearing, and, therefore, of due process in the constitutional sense. 


Defendants pled not guilty in state court to charges of rape after an incident that took place on a freight train. Although it was recited that defendants were represented by counsel upon arraignment, no counsel had been employed until the day of the trial. Prior to that time, the trial judge had appointed all members of the bar for the limited purpose of arraigning defendants. Defendants were ultimately found guilty and sentenced to death. The trial court overruled defendants' motions for new trials, and their convictions were affirmed by the state supreme court. The Supreme Court of the United States granted defendants' petitions for certiorari, for consideration of only one assignment of error: the denial of counsel in contravention of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Were criminal defendants denied due process of law, in contravention of the Fourteenth Amendment, when they were denied the right of counsel?




The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the convictions and remanded upon holding that defendants were denied their right to counsel in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held that defendants did not have the aid of counsel in any real sense from the time of their arraignment until the beginning of trial. The Court noted that defendants' illiteracy, youth, and the circumstances of public hostility made the necessity of counsel so imperative that the trial court's failure to make an effective appointment of counsel and the failure to give defendants a reasonable opportunity to secure counsel was a clear denial of due process.

First, the record showed 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. A defendant should be afforded a fair opportunity to secure counsel of his own choice. Not only was that not done here, but such designation of counsel as was attempted was either so indefinite or so close upon the trial as to amount to a denial of effective and substantial aid in that regard. In fact, as of the morning of the trial no lawyer had been named or definitely designated to represent the defendants. Second, the Constitution of Alabama provides that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to have the assistance of counsel; and a state statute requires the court in a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, to appoint counsel for him. 

The Court ruled that in a capital case, where 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.

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