Matthew's Foray into Blogging

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Annals of Criminal Law Are Rife with Cases with Significant Problems

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said of prosecutorial misconduct in the Zacarias Moussaoui trial, “I don’t think in the annals of criminal law there has ever been a case with this many significant problems.” That seems like a significant overstatement, to me. Powell v. Alabama comes to mind as an example of a monumental failure of the judicial system.

In Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (U.S. 1932), seven black youths were accused of raping two white women aboard a train in Alabama. The defendants were not afforded an opportunity to retain counsel and no counsel was appointed until the day of trial. The trial judge invited members of the bar to come forward to represent the defendants, and the appearance by the two attorneys who did participate, who were unable to prepare or conduct an investigation, was “rather pro forma than zealous and active.” The defendants pleaded not guilty, but they were ultimately found guilty and sentenced to death. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the convictions.

The United States Supreme Court addressed the novel question of whether, in a capital trial, a defendant is denied due process of law when he or she is not afforded the aid of counsel from the time of arraignment until the beginning of trial. The Supreme Court, of course, resolved the case in favor of the uneducated, illiterate youths, against whom public sentiment had been aroused, and who were cut off from communication with their families. “A defendant, charged with a serious crime, must not be stripped of his [or her] right to have sufficient time to advise with counsel and prepare his [or her] defense.” The highest court in the land determined that the necessity of counsel was so vital and imperative that the failure of the trial court to make an effective appointment of counsel was a denial of due process within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The alleged victims later recanted.

Most of the Supreme Court cases construing the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments have come about because of failures in the criminal justice system. I doubt that the Zacarias Moussaoui trial is any more exceptional than are some of the other cases in the annals of criminal law.

3 Comments:

  • Very good point, Matthew.

    I admit I've not spent much time looking at the Moussaoui trial, but it does sound like there might be some issues...

    By Blogger Steve, at 7:00 AM, March 22, 2006  

  • "I don’t think in the annals of criminal law there has ever been a case with this many significant problems." But it sounds so impressive--I'd like to wear a black robe and pound a gavel while saying it.

    By Blogger English Professor, at 9:50 PM, March 22, 2006  

  • Apparently, Judge Brinkema has been looking upon the prosecution with a stern gaze. This is all news from last week, though.

    By Blogger Matthew, at 3:16 AM, March 23, 2006  

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