The group was traveling in a freight train with seven males and two females, all white. A fight broke out and all of the white males, except for one, were thrown from the train. The women accused the men of rape, but one woman later retracted her claim. All of the defendants—except for Roy Wright—were sentenced to death in a series of one-day trials. The defendants were only given access to their lawyers immediately prior to the trial, leaving little or no time to plan the defense. The ruling was appealed on the grounds that the group was not provided adequate legal counsel. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled 6 – 1 that the trial was fair (the strongly dissenting opinion was from Chief Justice Anderson) and it was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The opinion noted that the atmosphere around the case was quite hostile; the prisoners were always escorted by the military and the trial took place in the presence of a "hostile and excited public". The judge never asked the defendants if they wanted counsel and he did not attempt to contact relatives of the defendants. A fairer trial could have been obtained by granting a delay in the case to allow for the defense to prepare, and also by providing additional counsel. It was also noted that some key witnesses to the crime never testified. The issue of Mr. Roddy, the defendants' informal counsel, was unclear. It seems the judge was not concerned that Mr. Roddy was neither familiar with Alabama legal procedures nor was a member of the local bar. The opinion includes several pages of dialogue between Roddy, the judge, and Mr. Moody that was used to prove that the issue of counsel was taken too lightly. By the morning of the trial, no lawyer had been formally named as the defendants' representative and there was no preparation before the trial began. Mr. Moody, a local lawyer, promised to help Mr. Roddy run the defense in order to make the trial fair. The opinion called Mr. Moody's promise "dubious", saying that Mr. Roddy had "little experience" and that "there was no defense." The opinion concluded: "In light of the fact outlined in the forepart of this opinion- . . . we think the failure of the trial court to give them reasonable time and opportunity to secure counsel was a clear denial of due process." In the end The Court held, "where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable adequately of making his own defense because of ignorance, feeble mindedness, illiteracy, or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him as a necessary requisite of due process of law; and that duty is not discharged by an assignment at such a time or under such circumstances as to preclude the giving of effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case".