Clarence Earl Gideon Trials: 1961 & 1963

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Clarence Earl Gideon Trials:
1961 & 1963

Defendant: Clarence Earl Gideon
Crime Charged: Breaking and entering
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: None; Second trial: W. Fred Turner
Chief Prosecutor: First trial: William E. Harris; Second trial: J. Frank Adams, J. Paul Griffith, and William E. Harris
Judge: Robert L. McCrary, Jr.
Place: Panama City, Florida
Dates of Trials: First trial: August 4, 1961;Second trial: August 5, 1963
Verdict: First trial: Guilty; Second trial: Not guilty
Sentence: First trial: 5 years imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: One man, without benefit of wealth, privilege, or education, went up against the entire legal establishment, arguing that his constitutional rights had been violated. In doing so, he brought about an historic change in American trial procedure: all felony defendants are entitled to legal representation, irrespective of the crime charged, and courts are to appoint an attorney if a defendant is too poor to hire one.

At eight o'clock on the morning of June 3, 1961, a patrolling police officer in Panama City, Florida, noticed that the door of the Bay Harbor Poolroom was open. Stepping inside, he saw that a cigarette machine and jukebox had been burglarized. Eyewitness testimony led to the arrest of Clarence Gideon, a 51-year-old drifter who occasionally helped out at the poolroom. He vehemently protested his innocence but two months later was placed on trial at the Panama City Courthouse. No one present had any inkling that they were about to witness history in the making.

As the law then stood, Gideon, although indigent, was not automatically entitled to the services of a court-appointed defense lawyer. A 1942 Supreme Court decision, Betts v. Brady, extended this right only to those defendants facing a capital charge. Many states did, in fact, exceed the legal requirements and provide all felony defendants with counsel, but not Florida. Judge Robert L. McCrary, Jr. did his best to protect Gideon's interests when the trial opened August 4, 1961, but he clearly could not assume the role of advocate; that task was left to Gideon himself. Under the circumstances Gideon, a man of limited education but immense resourcefulness, performed as well as could be expected, but he was hardly the courtroom equal of Assistant State Attorney William E. Harris, who scored heavily with the testimony of Henry Cook.

This young man claimed to have seen Gideon inside the poolroom at 5:30 on the morning of the crime. After watching Gideon for a few minutes through the window, Cook said, the defendant came out clutching a pint of wine in his hand, then made a telephone call from a nearby booth. Soon afterward a cab arrived and Gideon left.

In cross-examination Gideon sought to impugn Cook's reasons for being outside the bar at that time of the morning. Cook replied that he had "just come from a dance, down in Apalachicolastayed out all night." A more experienced cross-examiner might have explored this potentially fruitful line of questioning, but Gideon let it pass and lapsed into a vague and argumentative discourse.

Eight witnesses testified on the defendant's behalf. None proved helpful and Clarence Gideon was found guilty. The whole trial had lasted less than one day. Three weeks later Judge McCrary sentenced Gideon to the maximum: five years imprisonment.

Gideon Appeals

Gideon was outraged by the verdict, particularly the fact that he had been denied counsel. He applied to the Florida Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, an order freeing him on the ground that he was illegally imprisoned. When this application was denied Gideon penciled a five-page document entitled "Petition for a Writ of Certiorari Directed to the Supreme Court." (A writ of certiorari is an order by an appellate court to hear a particular appeal.) In other words, Gideon was asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case. The suit was placed on the docket under the title Gideon v. H.G. Cochran, Jr., who happened to be the director of Florida's Division of Corrections.

Each year the Supreme Court receives thousands of petitions. Most are meritless and don't get heard. Sheer weight of numbers militates against the deserving remainder, and yet, against all odds, the Supreme Court decided to hear Gideon's petition. Abe Fortas, who would himself later sit on the bench, was appointed to plead Gideon's case. Responding for Cochran were Bruce R. Jacob and George Mentz. The date for oral argument was set for January 14, 1963, but before that date Mr. Cochran resigned his position with the Florida Division of Corrections. He was replaced by Louie L. Wainwrightearning for that man an enduring and wholly unwanted place in judicial historyand the case was renamed Gideon v. Wainwright.

Fortas, arguing that the restrictive nature of Betts v. Brady had treated Gideon unfairly, drew a poignant analogy: "I was reminded the other night, as I was pondering this case, of Clarence Darrow when he was prosecuted for trying to fix a jury. The first thing he realized was that he needed a lawyerhe, one of the country's greatest criminal lawyers." It was time, said Fortas, for the law to change.

Needless to say, Jacob and Mentz stridently disagreed, but the mood of the times was against them, and, on March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously overruled Betts v. Brady, saying that all felony defendants were entitled to legal representation, irrespective of the crime charged. Justice Hugo L. Black wrote the opinion that set aside Gideon's conviction:

[R]eason and reflection requires 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.

On August 5, 1963, Clarence Gideon again appeared before Judge Robert L. McCrary in the Panama City Courthouse, and this time he had an experienced trial lawyer, W. Fred Turner, to defend him. All of the publicity resulted in a heavily bolstered prosecution team. In addition to William Harris, State Attorney J. Frank Adams and J. Paul Griffith were on hand to uphold the validity of the first conviction. Henry Cook was again the main prosecution witness but fared badly under Turner's incisive questioning. Particularly damaging was his admission that he had withheld details of his criminal record at the previous trial. Due in large part to Cook's poor showing, the jury acquitted Gideon of all charges.

He died in 1972 at age 61.

Because one man sat down and wrote a letter, no felony defendant need ever fear facing a court alone. Gideon v. Wainwright extended the law's protection to all. More than that, it gave justice a better name.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

The Guide To American Law. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co., 1984.

Lewis, Anthony. Gideon's Trumpet. New York: Random House, 1964.

Schwartz, Bernard. History Of The Law In America. New York: American Heritage, 1974.

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