In 1932, the United States Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Powell v. Alabama. The legal ruling created a sensation at the time, over what, in retrospect, looks to be an easy case. The Alabama state prosecutor sought to railroad nine black men, the “Scottsboro Boys,” in a capital case involving their alleged rape of two white women. The defendants were convicted and each was sentenced to the death penalty, even though they were only given their state appointed lawyers on the morning of the first trial.
The Alabama Court took no notice, but the Supreme Court reversed the conviction on the grounds that the legal assistance given to these defendants was both too little and too late, depriving the men of their life, liberty, and property, without meeting the constitutional requirements of “due process of law.”
Eighty years later, the criminal justice system is in better shape, but prosecutorial zeal can still pose a real threat to liberty unless judges are alert to its dangers. Consider the complex prosecution of former New York Senate Majority Leader, Joseph L. Bruno, a man in his ninth decade of life. Bruno, a Republican, was indicted in January 2008 under a statutory provision that provides that “the term, scheme or artifice to defraud includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services."
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