Coleman v. Alabama

PETITIONER: John Henry Coleman and Otis Stephens
LOCATION: Birmingham City Jail

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 399 US 1 (1970)
ARGUED: Nov 18, 1969
DECIDED: Jun 22, 1970
GRANTED: Mar 24, 1969

Charles Tarter - for the petitioners
David W. Clark - for the respondent

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.


(1) Did denying Coleman and Stephens counsel during their preliminary hearing violate the Sixth Amendment?

(2) Was the police line-up so unfairly suggestive that it violated due process under the Fourteenth Amendment?

Media for Coleman v. Alabama

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 18, 1969 in Coleman v. Alabama

Warren E. Burger:

Number 72, Coleman and Steven against Alabama.

Mr. Tarter, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Charles Tarter:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

On July 24, 1966, in the city of Birmingham, Alabama on a dimly lit highway in Jefferson County of Alabama, several black individuals attacked a white man and his wife on the side of the road, while they were fixing a flat on their car.

These black individuals fired a pistol twice into the body of the gentleman fixing the car.

A passing car coerced the individuals to flee from the scene and on September 29, 1969, approximately 1966 -- I beg your pardon approximately 2 months later, they were arrested.

They were interrogated.

They were placed in a line up.

They were taken before a magistrate for a preliminary hearing.

They were arraigned, they were tried, they were convicted just this case has sort his way to this Court.

The question is whether or not the preliminary hearing is a critical stage in the proceedings of a criminal case, requiring the presence of counsel.

However, the real case here, real issue here if with regard to a poor man being a defendant in a preliminary hearing.

The Sixth Amendment says, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

And I suggest to you there weren't not for the fact that these defendants are poor, they would not be here today.

The Court has interpreted the Sixth Amendment to mean that counsel is needed at the accusatory stage, at the interrogation, at the lineup, at the arraignment, at the trial, at the appeal, at the probation hearing.

But it has excused and ignored the preliminary hearing, which is probably the most single, most important phase of criminal procedure.

In my county, these defendants could be tried at the county courthouse without a lawyer at the preliminary hearing.

They could walk three blocks down the street and have a lawyer at the preliminary hearing at the federal court.

To me that is not equal and exact justice.

Potter Stewart:

You got to tell us, I hope -- what's your argument?

Just what is the function of a preliminary hearing in your --

Charles Tarter:

Yes, Your Honor.

Potter Stewart:

-- brief and what happens there?

Charles Tarter:

Getting to it right -- in just a moment, if Your Honor please I've listed 17 reasons in my brief.

The Court in the past has refused to call the preliminary hearing critical because a plea was not required, in White versus Maryland once again in Pointer versus Texas.

Warren E. Burger:

Now, let me clear up one thing from my own situation.

At the time the -- an accused or a person goes to preliminary hearing in Alabama, is he then a defendant as any charge been launched against him?

Charles Tarter:

Yes, sir.

A warrant has obtained after his arrest.

He lodged in the city jail, warrant is obtained after his arrest, he had taken over to the county jail.