1932 November 7

Scottsboro Case Impact: Supreme Court Rules Lawyer Required in Capital Cases


The Scottsboro case, in which nine young African-American men were accused of raping two white women (see the arrests on March 25, 1931), was arguably the most important civil rights case of the 1930s. Three Scottsboro cases reached the Supreme Court and resulted in landmark decisions by the Court. In Powell v. Alabama, decided this day, the Court ruled that in a criminal case where the defendant faced the possibility of the death penalty, he or she had to have an attorney under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The Court’s decision was not only a landmark in terms of racial justice but also with respect to the Supreme Court’s review of the criminal process.

In Norris v. Alabama and Patterson v. Alabama, both decided on April 1, 1935, the Supreme Court overturned both convictions because the African-Americans had been systematically excluded from jury pools, thereby denying the defendants a fair trial. The decisions were an important milestone in terms of race discrimination in the criminal justice system.

The Scottsboro case finally came to an end 80 years after it began, when Alabama issued posthumous pardons to three of the defendants on November 21, 2013.

The Court: “ . . . 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. . . .”

Read: Dan T. Carter, Scottsboro: a Tragedy of the American South (1969)

Read Haywood Patterson’s memoir: Haywood Patterson and Earl Conrad, Scottsboro Boy (1950)

Douglas O. Linder: “No crime in American history — let alone a crime that never occurred — produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, and retrials as did an alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenagers on the Southern Railroad freight run from Chattanooga to Memphis on March 25, 1931.”

The quote and more about the case: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scottsboro/scottsb.htm

Learn more; a 58-year timeline for the Scottsboro case: http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/timelines/a/Timeline-Of-Scottsboro-Boys.htm

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