Coleman v. Alabama Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Petitioners were not allowed counsel at a lineup or at a preliminary hearing, and they were convicted of assault with intent to murder.

Facts of the case

John Henry Coleman and Otis Stephens were convicted of assault with intent to murder. The primary evidence against them was the identification by the victim, Casey Reynolds. He identified the pair in a police lineup at the Birmingham City Jail. During this lineup, the police had Coleman and Stephens say certain phrases that Reynolds remembered his attackers saying. Coleman and Stephens also did not have counsel at their preliminary hearing. The Alabama Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions, rejecting augments that the lineup was so suggestive that it likely caused a misidentification, and that the preliminary hearing was a critical stage of prosecution where the defendants were entitled to the assistance of counsel. The Supreme Court of Alabama denied review.


Are a criminal defendant’s rights to counsel denied by their not being presented with the assistance of an attorney at a preliminary hearing?


Yes. Vacate the convictions and remand the case for a determination of whether the denial of right to counsel here was either harmless or prejudicial error.
The preliminary hearing is a critical stage of the prosecution, therefore the furnishing of counsel is required constitutionally.
Also, the in-court identification of the defendants did not stem from a lineup procedure giving rise to a substantial likelihood of misidentification.


The Supreme Court of the United States vacated defendants’ convictions and remanded the case to the state court with instructions to determine whether the denial of counsel at petitioners’ preliminary hearing constituted harmless error and whether the convictions should be reinstated or a new trial ordered. The Court held that the facts that Coleman was the only member of the lineup wearing a hat and that all of the members of the lineup were not asked to speak did not make the lineup impermissibly suggestive. However, defendants were entitled to counsel in all critical phases of the proceeding. Although Alabama law prohibited the use at trial of anything that defendants could have said at the preliminary hearing, the hearing was still a critical phase. The Court reasoned that it was a critical phase because the State was required to show probable cause, and if counsel were present, counsel could have been able to disprove probable cause as well as develop evidence.

  • Case Brief: 1970
  • Petitioner: John Henry Coleman and Otis Stephens
  • Respondent: Alabama
  • Decided by: Burger Court

Citation: 399 US 1 (1970)
Argued: Nov 18, 1969
Decided: Jun 22, 1970
Granted Mar 24, 1969