Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Gideon v. Wainwright : 50 years

Proverbs 31:9 Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.

Between midnight and 8:00 a.m. on June 3, 1961, at the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida, someone broke open a door, smashed the cigarette machine and a record player, and stole some money from a register. Later that day, a witness reported that he had seen Clarence Earl Gideon in the pool room at around 5:30 that morning leaving with a wine bottle and money in his pockets. Based on this accusation police arrested the suspect and charged him with breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny.
In the court case that followed. the following exchange tool place.

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.(1)

He was still denied, his complaint was not heard, he was convicted of the crime and sentenced to five years imprisonment.(2)
Using the prison library Gideon wrote a handwritten appeal. His argument that the sixth amendment, which gives the right to council, applied to state cases, not just Federal, this was in contrast to an earlier Supreme Court Decision (Betts v. Brady) that this was not a necessary right, and therefore did not belong to those in merely state trials.(3)
Thus, the court had in the past concluded that the right to council was not a fundamental right, although in special cases council could be appointed if the judge deemed it necessary, such as with a young defendant.(4)
On January 15, 1963, Gideon had his case heard by the Supreme Court in Oral Arguments. Gideon won his case. The court, after listening to the case, ruled on March 18, in part:
"The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. If charged with crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel, he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence." (5)
The Sixth Amendment stands as a constant admonition that, if the constitutional safeguards it provides be lost, justice will not 'still be done.'"(6)
Afterwards, Gideon's original case was retried with benefit of council, which he also won.

1: 372 U.S 337
2: ibid.
3: ibid. pp. 342
4: ibid. pp. 344
5: 287 U.S. at 287 U. S. 68-69. (quoted: 372 U. S. 345)
6: Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U. S. 458, 304 U. S. 462 (1938)

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