Gideon v. Wainwright and the modern criminal justice system

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  • Between midnight and 8:00 am on June 3, 1961, a burglary occurred at the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida.

  • Someone broke a window, smashed the cigarette machine and jukebox, and stole money from both.

  • Later that day, a witness reported that he had seen Clarence Earl Gideon in the poolroom at around 5:30 that morning.

  • When Gideon was found nearby with a pint of wine and some change in his pockets, the police arrested him and charged him with breaking and entering.


  • semi-literate drifter who could not afford a lawyer, so at the trial, he asked the judge to appoint one for him.

  • Gideon argued that the Court should do so because the Sixth Amendment says that everyone is entitled to a lawyer.

  • The judge denied his request, ruling that the state did not have to pay a poor person's legal defense unless he was charged with a capital crime or "special circumstances" existed. Gideon was left to represent himself.

-Gideon did a poor job of defending himself.

  • He had done no preparation work before his trial:

  • his choice of witnesses was unusual—for instance, he called police officers who arrested him to testify on his behalf, not having any reason to believe they would help his case.

  • He had no experience in cross-examining a witness in order to impeach that person's credibility, so his line of questioning was not as productive as a lawyer's would have been.

-Gideon was found guilty of breaking and entering and petty larceny, which was a felony.

  • He was sentenced to five years in a Florida state prison, partly because of his prior criminal record.

  • While in prison, he began studying law in the prison library--believing that his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated when he was denied a defense lawyer paid for by the State.

  • His study of the law led him to file a petition for habeas corpus with the Supreme Court of Florida, which asked that he be freed because he had been imprisoned illegally.

  • After the Supreme Court of Florida rejected his petition, he handwrote a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States, asking that it hear his case.

  • The Court allowed him to file it in forma pauperis, which meant that the Court would waive the fees generally associated with such a petition. Generally, the Court dismisses most of these petitions; Gideon's was among those that it did not dismiss.

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