Daily photo by Deangelo McDaniel|
Former area legislator Tom Drake’s grandfather, attorney Jasper Newton Powell, attended each day of the Scottsboro Boys’ trial in Decatur.
A witness to history
Area lawyer turned down role in famous trial held in Decatur
By Deangelo McDaniel
CULLMAN — Jasper Newton Powell may have been the only lawyer in America whose help was sought by both the defense and prosecution in the Depression-era trial of nine black youths accused of raping two white women.
But the son of the South, who had fended off Ku Klux Klan threats in previous cases where he represented black defendants, did not help either side.
“They couldn’t afford to pay him,” his grandson and former Alabama Speaker of House Tom Drake of Cullman said.
“Granddaddy had 11 children, and he had to feed his family.”
Drake, a third-generation lawyer, said both sides sought his grandfather’s help because he had a reputation of being able to “pick honest jurors who would look at the facts and judge them fairly.”
A Methodist minister and lawyer, Powell preached at white and black churches in Morgan County and was known to win acquittals for black defendants in what appeared to be desperate situations.
In one case, for example, Powell represented a man accused of stealing a hog. For compensation, he agreed to accept half the meat from the hog.
When the defendant testified, he told jurors that he didn’t take any more of the hog than Powell. The jury acquitted the defendant.
Powell’s reputation and ties to the black community are the reasons why friends of the nine defendants in the Scottsboro Boys case sought his assistance.
Even though the case originated in Jackson County, the second round trials were in Decatur.
Drake, whose research has led him to conclude, as his grandfather did, that there was no rape, said Powell recommended that the defendants seek counsel outside of Morgan County.
New York attorney Samuel Leibowitz represented Haywood Patterson during his second trial in Decatur.
As for the prosecution, Drake said, Melvin Hudson, one of the founders of Mutual Savings Life Insurance Co. and district attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, called his grandfather the night before jury selection.
This photo of Judge James Horton is in Tom Drake’s law office in Cullman. Drake’s grandfather Jasper Newton Powell is in the background.
“Melvin said they couldn’t come up with the money to pay him,” Drake said.
Even though he didn’t help either side in the case, Powell attended the trial about every day.
Drake has a framed picture with his grandfather in the courtroom behind Judge James Horton of Limestone County.
“I’m proud of these,” he said, pointing to the picture and the framed copy of Powell’s law license.
Powell, whose father fought for the Union and participated in Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” didn’t plan to become a lawyer.
Educated at the Methodist Seminary in Sneed, he was a circuit preacher and known for his oratorical skills.
Preaching full time didn’t provide enough money to feed and educate his children, so the father of 11 enrolled at Cumberland Law School in Lebanon, Tenn.
After six months at Cumberland, he applied for a license to the clerk of the state Supreme Court.
“Back then you didn’t have to go many years to law school and pass the bar,” Drake explained. “You just had to be literate and be able to communicate.”
Supreme Court Clerk Robert F. Ligon gave Powell a list of questions to answer.
Unable to answer the questions, Powell wrote about his life.
“I do not know the answers, but let me tell you about Butler Powell,” he wrote, according to his son, Miles Powell of Decatur. Butler was his father’s nickname.
Starting his practice
He returned to Morgan County, believing that he might never practice law. To Powell’s surprise, Ligon signed the license on Aug. 19, 1917, and mailed it.
From the beginning, Powell represented people without regard to race or economic status, family members said.
“He enjoyed taking the most difficult cases that didn’t seem winnable,” Drake said.
As for the Scottsboro Boys case, Drake said, his grandfather didn’t talk much about it.
Top criminal lawyer
“He was one of the top criminal defense lawyers in Morgan County, so he had so many cases to talk about,” Drake said. “He’d represent people for chickens or for whatever they could pay him with.”
While Powell didn’t talk about the rape case, his family was aware of their connection to it.
“Daddy was in the courtroom everyday because criminal cases were entertainment,” his son said.
“Very few people had radios. So, if you wanted entertainment, you went to the courthouse when court was in session.”
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