“You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”
The story of those familiar words started with a Bay Harbor, FL poolroom break-in in 1961. The break-in resulted in the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Clarence Earl Gideon. A handwritten letter Gideon sent from prison resulted in the US Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright. In that 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court clearly stated the constitutional right to counsel for criminal defendants.
March 18, 2013 marks 50 years since the decision. The case forever changed the criminal justice system o the United States and around the world, Gideon’s case spawned a book and a movie starring Henry Fonda.
The then US Attorney General 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, …. the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter … And the whole course of legal history has been changed.”
The impact has been enhanced by the almost mythical nature of the details. A protagonist with an eighth grade education and a pencil changed legal history. Is the legend correct? Or were the pencil written petitions to the Florida and United States Supreme Courts actually the work of a murdering judge? Part I looks at the case and its impact. Part II examines the legend.
The Right To an Attorney in Criminal Cases Before Gideon
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to … have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”
The Constitution‘s Sixth Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights and was ratified in 1791. For over 140 years those words meant essentially that a criminal defendant could hire a lawyer for his defense. An indigent person was not entitled to have a government paid lawyer.
Beginning in the 1930’s the Supreme Court began ordering the appointment of attorneys in capital cases or felony matters with “special circumstances”. For Gideon in 1961 no clear rule of law entitled him to an appointed attorney.
Clarence Earl Gideon and the Poolroom Break-In
Gideon, born in 1910, had only completed 8th grade. He was married four times, and in 1961 his criminal history included four prison terms. In June, 1961 he was living alone in a rooming house near the Bay Harbor Poolroom.
Money, beer, and wine were taken during the June 3 break-in. Twenty-two year-old Henry Cook, who lived near the pool room, told police that at about 5:30 AM he had seen Gideon in the pool hall standing by the cigarette machine. Cook saw Gideon leave the pool hall with a bottle of wine and bulging pockets, going to a phone booth. A few minutes later Gideon got into a cab and left. Gideon was arrested at about 10:30 AM, that same day at a bar in Panama City.
Gideon was charged with a felony and the case was called for trial on August 4. Gideon told the judge he was not ready for trial because he did not have a lawyer, and asked the court to appoint one. The judge explained that he could not. Gideon replied:
“The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.”
The judge noted Gideon’s request for the record and denied it. Gideon represented himself at the jury trial and was found guilty. On August 25, 1961, based upon his criminal history, Gideon was sentenced to the five year maximum.
From Prison Clarence Gideon Petitions: Bay County,
The United States District Court, The Florida Supreme Court and
The Supreme Court of the United States
As portrayed in the movie, and in most other sources, upon his arrival at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, FL, Gideon began spending most of his time in the prison library studying the law. Subsequent events would show that he seemed to be a very quick study.
On October 9, 1961 he sent a handwritten document created with a pencil to the Florida Supreme Court requesting a writ of habeas corpus. Gideon’s petition to the Florida Supreme Court asserted his trial was unfair because his request for an appointed lawyer was denied. He also said he attempted to petition Bay County, FL and the United States District Court, but the sheriffs refused to allow the petitions “to go”. Gideon asked for his conviction to be set aside.
Gideon worked quickly in prison. His petition was filed 45 days after he had been sentenced. The Florida Supreme Court worked quickly as well and denied his petition on October 30, 1961. On January 6, 1962, Clarence Gideon’s famous, handwritten Petition for Writ of Certiorari, done in pencil, was sent to the US Supreme Court. The Court granted Gideon’s petition and appointed Abe Fortas, who himself would later become a Supreme Court judge, to represent Gideon in his appeal.
In just over four months from his trial without a lawyer, Clarence Gideon’s case was before the United States Supreme Court. That is supersonic speed in “legal time”.
Supreme Court Recognizes Indigent Right to Counsel and Gideon Gets a New Trial
On March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court issued its ruling that Gideon had been denied a fair trial because he was not given a court appointed lawyer. The ruling did away with the requirement that “special circumstances” exist before an indigent defendant has a right to a court appointed attorney. The Supreme Court ordered Florida to give Gideon a new trial, with an appointed attorney.
At the New Trial, With An Attorney, Gideon Found Not Guilty
During jury selection Turner excused two jurors he knew would likely be unfavorable to Gideon’s case. During the trial he caught Henry Cook in a lie during his testimony. He proposed to the jury that the real culprits of the break-in were Cook and some friends. Gideon was found not guilty.
The critical importance of a competent attorney to someone accused of a crime even if there were no “special circumstances” was vindicated.
Legally Important and Mythically Alive
The Gideon case had repercussions through the courts. Every county needed to establish a system of public defenders. The case reverberated around the world then and does 50 years later.
The legal importance cannot be overstated. In some ways the case is larger than just the dramatic change in the criminal justice system. It has another life apart from the strictly legal and tells a very human story because of the picture of Gideon working away with pencil and paper in the prison library. That picture moved Attorney General Kennedy’s eloquence. Part II takes a look at the accuracy of that picture.
The principles of Gideon impacted the law in Australia, Canada, India and Ireland. Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law at Stetson College of Law (and the Florida Asst. Attorney General who represented Florida in Gideon 50 years ago) Bruce Jacob, provides a detailed description of Gideon‘s world wide impact in MEMORIES OF AND REFLECTIONS ABOUT GIDEON v. WAINWRIGHT. The Gideon decision reverberates in the 21st century on how to handle terrorists and advising suspects like alleged Boston Bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev that he has the right to an attorney.
A “capital” case is one in which the death penalty is a possibility.
Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932), the case of the Scottsboro Boys. After the Scottsboro Boys, the Supreme Court began to define “special circumstances” requiring the appointment of counsel. Some examples: complex charges, ignorance, illiteracy, lack of education, youth, and unfamiliarity with court procedure, insanity, or inability to understand English. In Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942), the court affirmatively stated that absent “special circumstances”, no right to appointed counsel existed.
 A Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus seeks an order for relief from an unlawful imprisonment. Its origins date back 800 years. The Founding Fathers felt habeas corpus to be so important it appears in the Constitution Art. I, sec. 9: “The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”
This is a petition asking the Supreme Court to hear the case. The Court has absolute discretion to grant or deny such petitions. If at least four of the nine justices agree to hear the case the petition is granted.