On this date in 1961 Clarence Gideon was sentenced to five years in a Florida state prison. What he did next forever changed the American legal system.
Clarence Gideon was a simple man with humble beginnings in Hannibal, Missouri. His father died when he was only three years old. He ran away from home after the eighth grade, living as a homeless drifter. As a teenager, he spent a few years in a reformatory only to be released into the Great Depression. After marrying and eventually settling in Florida, Gideon was arrested on felony theft charges on June 3, 1961.
Not able to afford an attorney, Gideon had no choice but to represent himself during his trial.
THE COURT: “Why do you not have counsel? Did you not know your case was set for trial today?”
GIDEON: “Yes, sir, I knew that it was set for trial today.”
THE COURT: “Why, then, did you not secure counsel and be prepared to go to trial?”
GIDEON: “Your Honor … I request this Court to appoint Counsel to represent me in this trial.”
THE COURT: “Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case.”
Gideon was found guilty and given the maximum sentence, five years in prison. Soon after his arrival in prison, he filed a hand-written pro se petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. He argued that his Sixth Amendment right to Counsel had been violated.
The Court agreed to hear his petition in order to resolve the question of whether the right to counsel in the Sixth Amendment applies to defendants in state court. The Court agreed with Gideon that he was entitled to an attorney to assist him with his defense, and reversed and remanded his case. In writing for the majority, Justice Black stated that “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.” Gideon’s case was reheard. With the assistance of an attorney who discredited the eyewitness testimony, Gideon was acquitted.
The legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright is apparent every day in courtrooms all over the country. After the 1963 holding in Gideon, public defender offices were created to make the right to an attorney available to most people charged with crimes who could not afford an attorney to represent them. Not only do public defenders provide a basic legal defense, they also recognize the role that substance abuse and mental illness play in the commission of crimes, making appropriate referrals for their clients where necessary. It is hard to imagine our criminal justice system if Clarence Gideon and his Supreme Court appeal never came along.