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Clarence Earl Gideon

Convicted of breaking and entering in Florida, Clarence Earl Gideon set a major legal precedent when he challenged his conviction, claiming that he could not afford an attorney and should have been appointed one by the court.
Gideon, a 50-year-old unemployed Caucasian man with a long history of juvenile and adult felonies, was convicted of breaking and entering into the Bay Harbor Pool Room on June 3, 1961, in Panama City, Florida. At around 5:30 a.m. on the morning of the crime, Gideon allegedly smashed a window leading into the pool room and stole approximately a dozen bottles of beer, a dozen bottles of Coca-Cola, several bottles of wine, about $5.00 from the cigarette machine, and $60.00 from the jukebox. Police arrested Gideon on a tip given to them by Henry Cook, a 20-year-old who claimed to have witnessed Gideon absconding with the stolen merchandise.
On August 4, 1961, Gideon went to trial for breaking and entering with the intent to steal. His case came before the court of Judge Robert L. McCrary, Jr., where a jury of six men convened to hear the opposing arguments. Unable to pay for legal representation, Gideon informed the court, before the trial began, of his inability to procure the help of an attorney. Despite Gideon’s financial limitations, the law at the time—as articulated in the Supreme Court decision, Betts v. Brady—held that unless the defendant’s case met an ambiguously defined set of “special circumstances,” the judge could only appoint counsel to a defendant if he or she was charged with a capital offense. With no other options, Gideon decided to act as his own lawyer and proceeded to try the case by himself. He made several beleaguered attempts to examine witnesses, but, lacking any legal training, he failed to expose the glaring weaknesses in the prosecution’s case.
Henry Cook, the sole eyewitness, gave the most damaging testimony when he stated under oath that he saw Gideon inside the pool room at the time of the crime and then, several minutes later, coming out with a pint of wine in his hand. Although Cook testified that, after a night of dancing, his friends happened to drop him off at the exact time and place of the crime, Gideon failed to press Cook any further on the happenstance nature of his whereabouts. As a result, the jury found Gideon guilty, and the judge imposed the maximum prison term of five years.
Claiming he had the right to an attorney, but could not afford one, Gideon petitioned the Florida Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus. After the Court denied Gideon’s petition, as a last resort, he submitted a handwritten petition to the Supreme Court of the United States for a writ of certiorari. He asserted that the Constitution entitled him to legal representation, and without it he was denied due process of law as guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Fortunately for Gideon, the Supreme Court decided to hear his case and, in so doing, to reconsider the correctness of the precedent established under Betts in 1942. Contrary to what Judge McCrary told Gideon at his trial, Betts held that while states are not required to furnish attorneys to indigent defendants in non-capital cases, in Florida, the judge has final discretion as to whether or not legal counsel should be provided. It boded well for Gideon that, before he drafted his petition, the Court had already taken strides to weaken Betts, and seemed poised to overturn it about the time Gideon’s case was entered in the docket.
With the help of a team of court-appointed lawyers led by renowned Washington attorney Abe Fortas, Gideon presented his argument to the Court in 1963. Fortas argued, first, that “the aid of counsel is indispensable to a fair hearing,” and that even the most competent laymen cannot produce a reasonable defense without comprehensive knowledge of the legal process. Next, Fortas attacked the “special circumstances” required to necessitate an attorney by asking the Court, “How can a judge, when a man is arraigned, look at him and say there are special circumstances? Does the judge say, ‘You look stupid,’ or ‘Your case involves complicated facts’? It is administratively unworkable.” Moreover, since Betts v. Brady did not create a clear-cut standard for the states to follow, the decision spawned an influx of habeas corpus petitions that in many ways proved more burdensome to the system than simply appointing an attorney from the outset. Lastly, Fortas pointed to 23 states that had filed amicus briefs in favor of overruling Betts once and for all.
Representing the respondent, Bruce Robert Jacob, a relatively inexperienced lawyer and the 26-year-old Assistant Attorney General of Florida, countered Gideon’s challenges by appealing directly to states’ rights. In affirmation of the Betts decision, he argued that every state should have the right to decide when and under what circumstances lawyers should be appointed. Switching to a more pragmatic line of argument, he claimed that the cost of providing counsel to all defendants would be a “tremendous burden on the taxpayers.”
The Court ruled in Gideon’s favor, holding that any person charged with a crime should have the right to an attorney regardless of his or her financial status. Although the Court usually refrained from meddling with established precedents, in Gideon v. Wainwright, they overturned a 20-year-old decision and asserted that the right to assistance of counsel is “fundamental” and the Fourteenth Amendment does make the right constitutionally required in state courts. Consequently, they reversed Gideon’s conviction and remanded the action to the Florida Supreme Court.
At Gideon’s second trial, he obtained the services of an appointed local defense attorney, W. Fred Turner. Turner’s help proved decisive. After investigating the crime scene, he discovered that the principal witness for the prosecution, Henry Cook, could not have seen what he alleged because advertising boards placed in the pool room’s windows would have obscured his line of vision. When Cook took the stand, Turner presented him with this information and went on to question his reason for being out at that specific time in the morning. Although Cook reiterated the account he gave at the previous trial—that his friends dropped him off there around 5:30 a.m.—Turner asked why they would drop him off two blocks away from his home when they had driven nearly 60 miles from the dance hall where they spent the night. Befuddled, Cook explained that he wanted to hang around until the pool room opened at 7:00 a.m. To discredit Cook’s testimony further, Turner brought up Cook’s criminal record and then accused him of acting as the lookout for the people who actually committed the crime.
When it was time for Turner to present his defense, he called surprise witness J. D. Henderson, a neighborhood grocer, who testified to an exchange he had with Cook on the day of the crime. Confirming the ambiguities in Cook’s testimony, Henderson said that Cook told him that he saw someone in the pool room who “looked like Mr. Gideon” but he was “not sure.” After nearly an hour of deliberation, the jury acquitted Gideon of all charges, and on August 6, 1963, after spending nearly two years in prison, he was finally released. In the aftermath of Gideon’s acquittal, Anthony Lewis, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote the famous book Gideon’s Trumpet, which chronicled Gideon’s struggle to overturn Betts v. Brady.
- Jason Robin
Most Serious Crime:Burglary/Unlawful entry
Reported Crime Date:1961
Sentence:5 years
Age at the date of crime:50
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense