Gideon v. Wainwright

On June 3, 1961, someone broke into a Panama City, Florida pool hall and stole alcohol and some change from a cigarette machine and a juke box.  Clarence Earl Gideon, a fifty-one-year-old drifter, was charged with a felony -- breaking and entering the pool hall with the intent to commit a misdemeanor.

Gideon was too poor to hire an attorney, so he asked the court to appoint one for him.  The trial judge denied the request, because Florida only provided an appointed lawyer to people facing the death penalty.

Gideon’s trial commenced on August 4, 1961. Representing himself, Gideon “conducted his defense about as well as could be expected from a layman” but it was no use. The jury convicted him and he was sentenced to five years in prison – the maximum sentence for the crime.

At the time Clarence Gideon was prosecuted, the law of the land was Betts v. Brady.   Decided in 1942, the case held that the Sixth Amendment only applied to trials in federal courts and that the right to counsel was “not a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial.”  For this reason, states were left free to follow their own views about whether to furnish counsel in state criminal cases.  The only exception was for capital cases, where the Court had held ten years earlier in Powell v. Alabama that the Fourteenth Amendment required the appointment of counsel “in a capital case, 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.”

With the aid of the prison library, Gideon hand-wrote in pencil a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.  He said:  “The question is I did not get a fair trial.  The question is very simple.  I requested the court to appoint me attorney and the court refused.”  The Supreme Court agreed to hear his case.  Abe Fortas, from the prominent Washington, D.C. law firm then known as Arnold Fortas & Porter and who later became a Supreme Court Justice himself, was appointed to represent Gideon before the Court.

In 1963, Justice Hugo Black delivered the opinion in the watershed case of Gideon v. Wainwright.  The Court said: “reason and reflection[] require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.  This seems to us to be an obvious truth.”  Finding that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries,” the Court held that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of counsel is a fundamental and essential right made obligatory upon the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Gideon Court overruled the twenty-one year old decision in Betts v. Brady.  Quoting Powell v. Alabama, the Court reaffirmed that “[t]he right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel.  …  [A person charged with a crime] requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him.  Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.”

Gideon’s “obvious truth” was made very apparent when Clarence Earl Gideon’s case was sent back to Florida for a new trial.  This time, Gideon proceeded with the “guiding hand of counsel.”  Fred Turner, a local attorney appointed by the court, fully investigated the case before trial.  He skillfully exposed the weaknesses in the testimony of the state’s witnesses, demonstrating how the state’s eyewitness was likely the real culprit.  Turner called Gideon to the stand where Gideon denied any role in the break-in and provided evidence of his innocence, effectively rebutting testimony that went unchallenged during the first trial.  The jury took merely an hour of deliberations to acquit Gideon of all charges.

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Publication Date: 2010