Editor’s note: The Legal Office presents a series of articles highlighting famous court decisions that shaped American culture—both good and bad. The goal is to peak an interest in the law, and provide a deeper context and appreciation on how the rule of law works in this country, and how it’s the foundation of society.
When speaking about the 1961 Gideon vs. Wainwright case, former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy summed it up best: “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.”
Early in the morning of June 1961, a breaking-and-entering occurred at the Bay Harbor Pool Room near Panama City, Florida. Reportedly some wine and change from the vending machines was stolen. An eyewitness, Henry Cook, reported to police that Gideon left the establishment with a bottle of wine and bulging pockets. Gideon was arrested later that morning and charged with breaking-and-entering a poolroom with intent to commit a misdemeanor, which was a felony in Florida.
When his case went to the circuit court in Bay County, Gideon was obliged to represent himself because he could not afford an attorney. He, born in 1910, had only completed the eighth grade and by 1961 his criminal history included four prison terms. Despite his request for the court to appoint an attorney, it was denied because Florida law did not require that provision. He was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment.
During this time he began studying legal books, and appealed his conviction to the Florida Supreme Court, which denied relief. He then mailed a handwritten letter on prison stationery to the U.S. Supreme Court asking them to review his case. He argued that the trial court’s refusal to appoint counsel for him denied him his rights as guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court decided to hear Gideon’s case on appeal.
The Supreme Court appointed a well-known attorney, Abe Fortas, to represent Gideon in his appeal. Fortas, a future justice on the Supreme Court, argued that a defendant in a criminal case cannot effectively prepare a defense and defend himself or herself at trial. They cannot continue to investigate or question witnesses.
Also, without legal training or representation, a defendant cannot adequately assess whether to plead guilty or to go to trial. If they choose to go to trial, someone without an attorney or legal training is at a disadvantage in conducting a defense at trial. Gideon was far from the only defendant forced to represent himself in court at this time.
To put this problem in perspective, the Florida Division of Corrections in 1962 researched how many of their inmates had received legal counsel. They learned that out of 8,000 inmates, nearly 1,000 of the inmates’ records were too old to determine, but for the remaining 7,000 prisoners approximately 4,500 (or 64.7 percent of 7,000) were not represented by counsel prior to their conviction.
The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of Gideon in 1963, and in doing so, every county in America needed to establish a system of public defenders to represent those who could not afford representation. The Court’s opinion notes that “… lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.” The Court also stated that “(f)rom the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”
Gideon was returned to Bay County for retrial. The circuit court judge appointed Fred Turner, who was reportedly the best criminal defense attorney in the county, to represent him. An interesting note about Turner is that he served as a staff officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II with the legendary “Flying Tigers.” Turner did an excellent job representing his client and managed to impeach the prosecution’s key witness. As a result, Gideon was acquitted at that second trial. A book about Gideon’s legal drama published not long after the Supreme Court decision is available called “Gideon’s Trumpet.”
AF LEGAL FACT: In 1975, the Air Force began the independent Area Defense Counsel program. Today, the ADC provides Air Force members who are suspected of an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice or facing potential adverse administrative actions with independent legal representation at no cost.
Both government prosecutors and Area Defense Counsels are charged with ensuring that military members are afforded due process.