• "From 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."

    Justice Hugo L. Black
    Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)

    Justice Hugo L. Black
    Photo Courtesy Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing

  • Continuing Gideon's Legacy -- Missouri State Public Defenders

    In 1972, the Missouri State Public Defender System was established, less than 10 years after Gideon v. Wainwright, with 14 public defender offices created in the state of Missouri by 1973. According to the Missouri State Public Defender website, the system currently has 36 district offices, six appellate sections, and three capital systems, employing 560 people dedicated to providing equal access to the law, equating to nearly 90,000 cases each year.

  • U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy
    Photo Courtesy LBJ Library, Yoichi Okamoto (Serial #W482-25)

    "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; and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look at the merits in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed.

    But Gideon did write that letter; the court did look into his case; he was re-tried with the help of competent defense counsel; found not guilty and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit. And the whole course of legal history has been changed."

    U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy
    Speech Before The New England Conference on the Defense of Indigent Persons Accused of Crime
    November 1, 1963

Follow Gideon’s Story Using The Timeline
  • Gideon v. Wainwright Timeline

    Clarence Earl Gideon
    Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida, Woody Wisner

    Fifty years ago, a crude, hand-written letter from a Florida inmate forever changed the course of the American judicial system. Clarence Earl Gideon, a native of Hannibal, Missouri, authored the petition which ultimately resulted in the landmark decision that guaranteed every American's right to a lawyer.

    2013 marks the 50th anniversary of this landmark ruling and its effects are still felt today. This U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down half a century ago led to the creation of the Missouri Public Defender system, making sure every individual has equal access to the law, regardless of income level, echoing former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black's sentiment as expressed in his written opinion in the 1956 Griffin v. Illinois decision (351 US 12 1956): "There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has."

  • The Crime

    Sometime between midnight and 8 a.m. on June 3, 1961, the Bay Harbor Poolroom in Panama City, Florida, was burglarized. Money was taken from the cash register and jukebox, and wine and beer had been stolen. A man who lived nearby reported he saw Gideon leaving the poolroom around 5:30 a.m. with a bottle of wine and money. Based on the accusation, police arrested Gideon and charged him with breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny.

  • The Trial

    Mugshot of Clarence Earl Gideon
    Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida

    At the time of his trial, Florida law limited the right to an attorney to only apply to defendants who faced the death penalty. Therefore Gideon stood before the court alone, too poor to afford counsel. According to Anthony Lewis’ book “Gideon’s Trumpet,” Gideon stood before the Honorable Robert J. McCray, Jr., and had the following conversation:

    The COURT:  "Why aren’t you ready?"

    GIDEON:  "I have no Counsel."

    The COURT:  "Why do you not have Counsel? Did you not know your case was set for trial today?"

    GIDEON:  "Yes, sir, I knew that it was set for trial today."

    The COURT:  "Why, then, did you not secure Counsel and be prepared to go to trial?"

    GIDEON:  "Your Honor … I request this Court to appoint Counsel to represent me in this trial."

    The COURT:  "Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case."

    GIDEON:  "The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel."

    The COURT:  "Let the record show that the Defendant has asked the Court to appoint Counsel to represent him."

    Gideon was forced to represent himself against an experienced lawyer and was found guilty. On August 26, 1961, Gideon was sentenced to serve five years in the state prison.

  • The Writ and Appeal

    From his prison cell, Gideon began appealing to higher courts. His first plea to the Florida Supreme Court was rejected. He then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Filing a hand-written writ on August 26, 1961, he argued he had been denied counsel and, therefore, his Sixth Amendment rights, as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, had been violated.

  • Oral Arguments

    Abe Fortas (June 19, 1910 – April 5, 1982
    Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court October 4, 1965 – May 14, 1969
    Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Marion S. Trikosko

    Abe Fortas, a prominent attorney in Washington D.C., and a future Supreme Court Justice, was appointed to represent Gideon before the Supreme Court. Simply put, his argument was an accused person cannot defend themself effectively. Abe Krash, an assistant to Fortas on the case, summed up the argument in his March 1998 article in the publication The Champion titled "Architects of Gideon: Remembering Abe Fortas and Hugo Black":

    "Without a lawyer, the defendant cannot properly evaluate the legality of his arrest, he cannot determine the validity of the indictment, whether a search and seizure has been lawful, or whether a confession is admissible. He cannot determine whether he is responsible for the crime charged or for a lesser offense. At the trial, the defendant is not qualified to make objections to evidence or to cross-examine witnesses. He is unable to act as a lawyer would in the sentencing process. In short, the assistance of a lawyer is essential to a fair trial and, accordingly, is required by due process of law."

  • The Decision

    On March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Gideon's Sixth Amendment rights had been violated. The Court held the right to assistance of counsel was fundamental and essential for a fair trial. The Court found Gideon's conviction without the assistance of counsel also violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In his concurring opinion, Justice Tom C. Clark stated "that the Constitution makes no distinction between capital and noncapital cases."

    Supreme Court in 1963
    Backrow (R to L): Justice Potter Stewart, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., Justice Byron R. White, Justice Arthur J. Goldberg
    Seated (R to L):Justice Tom C. Clark, Justice Hugo L. Black, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Justice William O. Douglas, Justice John M. Harlan
    (click for larger view)
    Photo courtesy The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

  • The Result

    Five months after the Supreme Court ruling, Gideon stood trial again for the crime, but this time he was represented by W. Fred Turner. Turner successfully discredited the eyewitness testimony. After one hour of deliberation, a jury acquitted Gideon.

  • Clarence Gideon Passes Away

    Gideon returned to his life before dying of cancer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the age of 61. However, this native Missourian was laid to rest in his hometown of Hannibal.

    According to an article published in the Hannibal Courier-Post, the American Civil Liberties Union placed a granite headstone on Gideon's grave in 1984. According to Jack King's article "Clarence Earl Gideon: Unlikely World-Shaker," the gravestone is etched with a line from the final paragraph of Gideon's November 1962 letter to Abe Fortas which read, "I believe that each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind."

  • Today and in The Future

    Since Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court has strengthened the rights of the accused. In the 1965 case Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478, the Court ruled that a person accused of a crime cannot be denied access to counsel when they request it. In the 1966 case Miranda v. Arizona, 384 US 436, the Court ruled that a person being arrested must be made aware of the rights available to them, including the right to counsel, with counsel provided if the accused can not afford one.

    In 1972, the Missouri State Public Defender System was established, less than 10 years after Gideon v. Wainwright, with 14 public defender offices created in the state of Missouri by 1973. According to the Missouri State Public Defender website, the system currently has 36 district offices, six appellate sections, and three capital systems, employing 560 people dedicated to providing equal access to the law, equating to nearly 90,000 cases each year.

    Work contines to overcome challenges in implementing the full promise of Gideon.

    The 50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright presented by the American Bar Association Section of Litigation. Speakers include Bruce Jacobs who argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court and Anthony Lewis, author of Gideon’s Trumpet. Plus, a CBS Reports special from 1964 which interviews Gideon.
    The film DEFENDING GIDEON by The Constitution Project weaves the story of this iconic case with contemporary portraits of legal injustice and highlights the importance of a system that guarantees representation for all.

Paid for by The Missouri Bar    Sebrina Barrett, Executive Director    PO Box 119    Jefferson City, MO 65102