Anniversary of Landmark Case: Right to an Attorney

Charles Earl Gideon
Charles Earl Gideon

photo via Dade County Public Defenders Office

Fifty years ago Monday, the Gideon v. Wainright case declared that states are obligated to provide defendants with “the guiding hand of counsel” to guarantee a fair trial for the accused. Prior to this case, government-funded lawyers were only provided for the indigent in capital cases. This case extended it to every case.

Clarence Earl Gideon was a drifter and a petty career criminal who had been in and out of jail for most of his 51 years. He was arrested for stealing wine and money from vending machines in a poolroom, found guilty and imprisoned. Gideon decided he was denied his constitutional right to a fair trial under the sixth amendment. He scratched out an appeal on a piece of paper.

Handwritten message
Gideon’s own handwriting in appeal

It  got the attention of the SCOTUS who ordered a retrial with a stellar defense team. His attorney poked holes in the prosecution case during the retrial. Five months later, Gideon was a free man.

Gideon took up his old life and married for a fifth time, dying of cancer in 1972. He is buried in an unmarked grave. A movie about the case, Gideon’s Trumpet, starred Henry Fonda.

Two thousand convicted people in Florida were released as a result of this case.

In 1963, Robert F. Kennedy remarked about the case:

“If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court; and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look at the merits in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter; the court did look into his case; he was re-tried with the help of competent defense counsel; found not guilty and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit. And the whole course of legal history has been changed.”

Unfortunately, the case, though well-intentioned, has not had the hoped-for effects. Lawyers who work in the public defenders office are generally over-burdened, underpaid, inexperienced and some are just plain incompetent. Lawyers are not held accountable because SCOTUS set a very high bar for the quality of work required of public defenders.

Gideon had the attention of the SCOTUS and the luxury of the rich man’s legal defense. The poor since 1963 have not. As Senator Patrick Leahy said, “ is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent.”

The case made everyone feel better.

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