When Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for a crime and was not able to afford legal representation, the issue at hand was whether a person without economic resources could defend themselves and win. This video segment explores the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright and how it ensured that all Americans, regardless of their economic background, received legal representation in a criminal case.
Clarence Earl Gideon’s tenacious fight for justice in the early 1960s resulted in sweeping changes to the American justice system.
Gideon was charged with breaking and entering following the robbery of a pool hall in Panama City in 1961, when he was spotted a few hours after the crime with his pockets bulging with change and carrying a pint of wine. His case was brought to trial in a Florida court. Unable to afford an attorney, Gideon requested that the court provide legal representation in his defense, as stated in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. Gideon was denied counsel because Florida’s courts would only supply defendants with attorneys in capital cases. Having no legal background, Gideon was unable to properly defend himself and was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
While in prison, Gideon filed a habeas corpus petition (for release from unjust imprisonment) to the Florida Supreme Court, claiming that his conviction was unconstitutional because he was not provided with a defense attorney at trial. After the Florida Supreme Court denied his petition, Gideon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed his case in 1963. The Court assigned a prominent Washington, D.C. attorney, Abe Fortas, to represent him. Fortas himself later became a Supreme Court Justice.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Gideon's conviction was unconstitutional because Gideon was denied a defense lawyer at trial. The Court ruled that the Constitution's Sixth Amendment gives defendants the right to counsel in criminal trials where the defendant is charged with a serious offense even if they cannot afford one. Justice Hugo Black wrote, "In our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled 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 … The right of one charged with a crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours."
This landmark case ensured the right for all Americans, regardless of their economic background, to have access to an attorney in a criminal case. The impact on the justice system was unprecedented. Almost overnight, public defenders, whose sole purpose was to defend the poor, were appointed all over the state of Florida and throughout the country.
HOWARD: Clarence Earl Gideon had broken into a pool hall in Florida and had been convicted of breaking and entering, but he didn't have a lawyer; he was too poor to afford one. And when the case got to the Supreme Court, the argument on behalf of Gideon was: it's simply a violation of due process of law for a person to be tried and convicted in a criminal court without a lawyer. People that can afford one have those protections, but poor people don't.
POWE: It was something that every American could understand was wrong. If the prosecutor's a lawyer and you are an indigent defendant, which probably means you're really down on your luck, how are you going to win?
HOWARD: Gideon was the one that somehow went to the heart of the whole criminal trial process. Gideon was the embodiment of Hugo Black's argument that the Bill of Rights guarantees ought to apply to the states. I knew as we worked on that opinion, here was one that was gonna be in the case books as long as people studied American constitutional law. This would be one of the big ones.
NARRATOR: For Black, the restrictions on state power were in the words of the Constitution-there it was, in black and white.
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