Gideon v. Wainwright 1963

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Gideon v. Wainwright 1963

Petitioner: Clarence Earl Gideon

Respondent: Louie L. Wainwright

Petitioner's Claim: The Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel for defendants unable to afford an attorney should apply equally to the states.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Abe Fortas

Chief Lawyer for Respondents: Bruce R. Jacob

Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black, William J. Brennan, Jr., Tom C. Clark, William O. Douglas, Arthur Goldberg, John Marshall Harlan II, Earl Warren, Byron R. White.

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: March 18, 1963

Decision: The Sixth Amendment applies to the states and they are required to provide defendants charged with serious crimes and unable to afford an attorney with legal counsel.

Significance: In taking his case to the United States Supreme Court, Clarence Gideon brought about an historic change in the way American criminal trials are conducted. Before this case, state courts only appointed attorneys for capital cases (cases with the possibility of the death penalty). Now all defendants charged with felony crimes (cases with the possibility of one year or more in prison) that cannot afford to pay for an attorney are entitled to court-appointed legal representation.

At eight o'clock on the morning of June 3, 1961, a police officer in Panama City, Florida, noticed that the door of the Bay Harbor Poolroom was open. Stepping inside, he saw that someone had burglarized the pool hall, breaking into a cigarette machine and jukebox. The evidence gathered by police led to the arrest of Clarence Gideon, a fifty-one-year-old drifter who sometimes worked at the poolroom. Gideon declared that he was innocent. Nonetheless, two months later he faced trial in the Panama City courthouse. No one present had any idea that they were about to witness history in the making.

Clarence Earl Gideon, in court without money and without a lawyer, asked the judge to appoint an attorney. Judge Robert L. McCrary, Jr. denied his request as under Florida law, he could only appoint counsel in a capital case. Gideon argued that the United States Supreme Court said he had a right to counsel.

The First Trial

The judge was correct. At that time, Florida law did not allow for a court-appointed defense lawyer. A 1942 Supreme Court decision, Betts v. Brady, had extended this right only to those state court defendants facing a charge punishable with the death sentence. Many other states voluntarily provided all defendants accused of a felony with a lawyer. Florida did not. So at the start of the trial on August 4, 1961, Clarence Gideon was alone in defending himself. Gideon, a man of limited education, performed as well as he could, but he was not the equal of the Assistant State Attorney William E. Harris.

Prosecution witness Henry Cook claimed to have seen Gideon inside the poolroom at 5:30 on the morning of the robbery. He had watched Gideon for a few minutes through a window. When Gideon came out of the pool hall he had a pint of wine in his hand, he made a telephone call from a nearby booth. Soon afterward a cab arrived and Gideon left.

During cross-examination Gideon questioned Cook's reasons for being outside the bar at 5:30 in the morning. Cook replied that he had "just come from a dance, had been out all night." An attorney might have checked out this story further, but Gideon let it pass. Eight other witnesses testified on Gideons behalf. None proved helpful, and Gideon was found guilty. The whole trial had lasted less than a day. At the sentencing hearing three weeks later Judge McCrary sentenced Gideon to the maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Gideon Fights Back

Gideon was outraged at the verdict. He applied to the Florida Supreme Court for an order freeing him because he had been illegally imprisoned (a writ of habeas corpus). When this application was denied, Gideon handwrote a five page appeal of this denial to the United States Supreme Court.

Each year the United States Supreme Court receives thousands of petitions. Most are rejected without any hearing. Against the odds, the Supreme Court decided to hear Gideon's petition. The case was heard as Gideon v. Wainwright (the director of Florida's Division of Corrections). Bruce R. Jacob, Assistant Attorney General of Florida argued the case for the State of Florida. Abe Fortas, Gideon's appointed counsel for the appeal (and later a Supreme Court justice himself) argued Gideon's suit. The court heard the oral argument on January 14, 1963.


C larence Gideon claimed that he had not had a fair trial because he could not afford an attorney and the court refused to give him one. Based on that he argued he was being held illegally and he sought a writ of habeas corpus. The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus is guaranteed by Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution. Habeas corpus is a Latin term that means "you have the body." It refers to a prisoner's right not to be held except under circumstances outlined by law. In other words, the police cannot simply pick up someone and hold him or her in prison. To legally hold a person in jail, the person must either be legally arrested and awaiting trial or convicted of a crime and serving a sentence. Moreover, the Fifth Amendment guarantees that citizens cannot be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." So Gideon claimed that since he had not had an attorney for his trial, he had not received due process of law.

On March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously overruled the prior case law Betts v. Brady, saying that all felony defendants are entitled to legal representation and sent Gideon's case back to the Florida trial court for a second trial. Justice Hugo L. Black wrote the opinion that set aside Gideon's conviction:

Reason and reflection requires us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled [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 Second Trial

On August 5, 1963, Clarence Gideon again appeared before Judge Robert L. McCrary in the Panama City courthouse, but at his new trial he had an experienced trial lawyer, W. Fred Turner, to defend him. Due to all of the publicity surrounding his Supreme Court victory there was an even stronger prosecution team against him at the second trial. State Attorney J. Frank Adams and J. Paul Griffith joined William Harris in an effort to convict Gideon a second time. Cook was again the main prosecution witness, Henry Cook, fell apart under Turner's expert questioning. Particularly damaging was Cook's admission that he had withheld details of his criminal record at the first trial. The jury found Gideon not guilty of all charges.

Clarence Earl Gideon died a free man in 1973 at age sixty-one.

Suggestions for further reading

Lewis, Anthony. Gideons Trumpet. New York: Random House, 1964.

Schwartz, Bernard. History of the Law in America. New York: American Heritage, 1974.

West Publishing Company Staff. The Guide to American Law. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1985.