The case of nine young African American men accused of the rape of two white women in the town of Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931, was a milestone in the emergence of a national civil rights movement. It was also an important milestone for the rights of criminal defendants, establishing for the first time that defendants facing the death penalty are constitutionally entitled to appointed counsel if they cannot afford one, and that the right to counsel includes the right to effective representation.
With angry white mobs milling outside a courthouse deep in the Jim Crow South, justice was skewed from day one of the trial. The so-called 'Scottsboro boys' – ranging in age from 12 to 19 – were entitled to an attorney under Alabama law because the charges carried a death sentence, but none came forward until the morning of trial, which occurred six days after the arraignment. Two attorneys then offered to represent the defendants for the first time – a Tennessee real estate lawyer unfamiliar with the Alabama courts and a local attorney who had not appeared before a jury in decades. Neither was adequately prepared to defend their young clients, and, as they admitted to the judge, had barely met or spoken with them before the trial began.
Not surprisingly, the all-white, all-male jury returned guilty verdicts in record time, and all but one of the nine were sentenced to death. As national outrage over the convictions grew, numerous organizations came forward to assist with appeals, including the ACLU.
ACLU attorney Walter Pollak, an expert on constitutional law, was the right man for the job: he had successfully argued the 1925 case of Gitlow v. New York, a landmark Supreme Court ruling which established, for the first time, that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to respect the Bill of Rights – in the case of Benjamin Gitlow, the right to free speech. In 1932, arguing before the Supreme Court on behalf of one of the Scottsboro boys in Powell v. Alabama, Pollak used the same legal strategy to establishthat due process prohibits the states from sentencing someone to death without ensuring that the defendant has been adequately represented by a lawyer at trial. While the Scottsboro case is known as a notorious example of institutionalized racism and a tragic miscarriage of justice, the Supreme Court's decision in Powell established an important right for defendants of all races in capital cases from that moment on.
In a subsequent Scottsboro appeal, Norris v. Alabama (1935),the Supreme Court unanimously overturned another conviction on the grounds that African-Americans had been systematically excluded from jury pools, violating the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial as well as the Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. The Scottsboro defendants were ultimately saved from execution, but they languished in prison for years. Even after being released, most never fully recovered from their ordeal, and their story has come to be known as 'an American tragedy.'