Landmark Cases: The Sixth Amendment



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Landmark Cases: The Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense (U.S. Constitution).” What this statement lays out are the rights of the accused. One of those rights is the right to legal counsel, but the language of the amendment does not specify at what point in due process that the suspect is able to take advantage of this right. Therefore, the Supreme Court rulings in landmark cases are what set precedents as to how the rights guaranteed by the sixth amendment are to be applied in due process. Two such cases that have changed the way the justice system operates are the cases of Gideon v. Wainwright and Escobedo v. Illinois.

The case of Gideon v. Wainwright established that all persons accused of any crime have the right to be provided with legal counsel if they cannot obtain an attorney themselves. Before this case, people charged with offenses at the state level could be denied counsel based on such things as the crime they were accused of was not a capital offense. The reason this denial of a sixth amendment right was legal was a precedent set by the case of Betts v. Brady (Gideon). In Betts v. Brady, the Court had decided that the states had the power to apply the Sixth Amendment how they pleased. Gideon was charged, in the state of Florida, with the noncapital felony of breaking and entering a poolroom with the intent to commit a misdemeanor (Gideon). When Gideon was taken to court he had no lawyer and no funds to attain one, and so he requested that the court appoint him counsel. The court denied his request on the basis that under Florida law the court may only appoint counsel to a defendant charged with a capital offense. Gideon was then tried before a jury, where he represented himself as best he could, and found guilty. He was sentenced to five years in state prison. While in prison, he first appealed to the State Supreme Court who denied him relief under Betts v. Brady (Gideon). While in his prison cell he hand wrote a petition for a writ of certiorari and mailed it to United States Supreme Court (Rashkind 13). The Supreme Court then issued a writ of certiorari in order to give the problem of a “defendant’s federal constitutional right in a state court…another review (Gideon).”

The Supreme Court decision was delivered by Justice Hugo Black and found that “the Court in Betts v. Brady departed from…sound wisdom (Gideon).” The Court stated that only Florida and two other states wished that Betts v. Brady be held in tact, and that twenty-two others found the decision to have been “an anachronism when handed down (Gideon).” The Court overruled the decision in Betts v. Brady and stated, “the judgment is reversed and the cause is remanded to the Supreme Court of Florida for further action not inconsistent with this opinion (Gideon).” The Supreme Court of Florida then retried Gideon who, this time with the help of counsel, was acquitted (Rashkind 15). The landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright established that all persons, no matter what circumstances, accused of a crime have the right to legal counsel, and a right for that legal counsel to represent them at trial. The case did not establish when or if the right to counsel becomes applicable before the trial, such as during interrogation.

The landmark case of Escobedo v. Illinois addressed the question of whether a suspect has the right to counsel during interrogation (Schmalleger 270). Escobedo was arrested for connection in the fatal shooting of his brother-in-law, and taken to police headquarters for interrogation. He made several requests to see his lawyer during the interrogation, and although his attorney was actually present in the building and actively trying to access his client, Escobedo was denied this request. Instead, investigators continued persistently questioning Escobedo, never informing him of his right to remain silent, and eventually Escobedo confessed in the presence of an Assistant State’s Attorney (U.S. Supreme).

The defendant was found guilty of murder, at which time he appealed to the State Supreme Court. The State Supreme Court only affirmed the decision, and so he appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Court found that when an investigation has begun to focus on “a particular suspect in police custody who has been refused an opportunity to consult with his counsel and who has not been warned of his constitutional right to keep silent, the accused has been denied the assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments; and no statement extracted by the police in the interrogation may be used against him at a trial (U.S. Supreme).” Justice Goldberg delivered the Court’s opinion. In his statement Goldberg addressed the concern that the ruling would be hampering the police’s ability to fight crime by reducing the number of confessions obtained would diminish (U.S. Supreme). He contended that although the number of confessions would most likely diminish, the argument had two sides to it. Our system of government, he explained, “strikes the balance in the favor of the accused (U.S. Supreme).” He went on to show that this is a good thing in the long run because, historically, a system that does not protect one against self-incrimination, but instead relies on confession will eventually become less reliable and greater possibility of corruption will occur (U.S. Supreme). The outcome of this decision was the overturned conviction of Escobedo, and a change in the procedure of the justice system (Shmalleger 270). The ruling said that counsel is needed during police interrogations to protect the rights of the suspect, and that counsel should be either provided or allowed access to the suspect whenever the suspect requests.

Landmark cases such as that as Gideon v. Wainwright and Escobedo v. Illinois have shaped the way that the criminal justice system operates. The constitution lays the very basic rules out for which the United States is to operate, but the constitution failed to supply specifics as to how these rules apply. It is through jurisprudence and the criminal justice system that these rules are interpreted, and evaluated to decide how to maintain the freedoms guaranteed to every citizen in the Constitution while still being able to combat crime.

Works Cited


“Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).”findlaw.com.17 October 2007. .

Rashkind, Paul M. “Gideon v. Wainwright.” Florida Bar Journal 77.3 (2003): 12-17.

Schmalleger, Frank. Criminal Justice Today.9th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., 2007. 246-283.

Schmalleger, Frank. “U.S. Supreme Court: Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478 (1964)” Exploring Criminal Justice Today. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., 2007. CD-ROM.



“U.S. Constitution: Sixth Amendment.” findlaw.com.17 October 2007. <http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/amendment06/>.


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