Gideon vs. Wainwright his 303: The American Constitution

Download 24.97 Kb.
Size24.97 Kb.

Gideon vs. Wainwright

HIS 303: The American Constitution

In the 6th amendment of Bill of Rights, it is stated that:

“In every criminal prosecution, the accused should be provided with the right for a public and speedy trial, by a completely impartial jury on behalf of the district and State wherein his crime took place, which district was previously permitted by the law, and to become informed about the cause and nature of his accusation; as well as to be faced with witnesses testifying against him; to possess compulsory process to obtain witnesses testifying in his favor, as well as for his defense, to attain the Assistance of Counsel.” In the following paper, we would have a discussion regarding the Gideon vs. Wainwright case and the way the Bill of rights got implemented using an unjust method and the way a person is possible to be judged for previous crimes committed several years ago.

A lot of people inferred from the amendment that it was a rule applicable to federal courts solely, but in the aftermath of Gideon vs. Wainwright case, it stands now as one applicable for every court. Clarence Gideon, in 196, was found guilty by the court of breaking and entering. As his conviction process concluded, he told the Supreme Court in a letter that the imprisonment imposed upon him was unconstitutional as he was no given a counsel. Supreme Court in 1963 voted in favor of Gideon and then overruled the Betts vs. Brady case. Gideon holds a big place in the legal history now, but gets little attention whatsoever.

On June 3rd, 1961, an unidentified miscreant broke into Bay Harbor Poolroom in the morning and got away with 24 bottles of soda pop and beer alongside four whole bottles of wine, as well as change from a jukebox and cigarette machine (Robin J. n.d.). An onlooker, Henry Cook, reported it to the local authorities of seeing Clarence Gideon walking out of the room, making a phone call, getting into a cab, eventually driving away. He further told the police that Gideon was seen with a few of those stolen products. On those grounds, police detained Gideon from a local store. It is truly amazing how someone can be detained solely on the basis of another’s statement regardless of it being false or true. One of my friends was picked up and then trialed and eventually sentenced to eight years in prison due to a crime not committed by him. Similar to Gideon, my friend was arrested on the basis of statement from another person who said they witnessed him at the crime scene.

Clarence Gideon, who became a drifter after being expelled from school from eighth grade, began building a criminal record from the time when he was 16. In the early parts of his life, Gideon spent time and again in prison due to crimes linked to theft and burglary. He was a convicted criminal of four previous felonies before the arrest. In the time period of early 1950s throughout 1961, he was not jailed for once. By the time he was arrested in 1961, Gideon was 51 years of age. He resided close to Bay Harbor Poolroom, as well as Henry Cook.

As court date of Gideon came, he asked for a lawyer for defending him as he was very poor, and as a result, was not capable of affording one. But he was denied, being told that he could not be eligible for a lawyer. Gideon responded by stating that he was certainly entitled to the right of a lawyer as per the sixth amendment of the constitution. His request was declined by Judge Robert McCrary. The judge said that someone who was accused of capital offenses could have the right for having a lawyer, on the basis of Florida state law (Aronovitz, 2003). Special circumstances existed, but Gideon could not qualify with regards to any. As a result, he was told to be his own representative.

During the trial, he asked questions, made the witnesses go through cross-examinations, and provided with opening as well as closing statements. According to him, Henry Cook belonged to group who were the actual robbers behind the Poolroom heist. He, however, rejected the idea of taking the stand by himself, although it could have been a difference maker as far as his conviction was concerned. A lot of people still wonder about the reason behind his refusal in taking the stand. This was perhaps due to Gideon’s feeling that as he did not have a lawyer, the prosecuting Lawyer and DA could have grilled him. The trial came to a conclusion as swiftly as it started and he was found guilty on charges including breaking and entering, as well as with intent of committing petty larceny. Later, he was given a five year sentence in prison as he was previous history of being convicted in federal and state felonies (Jacob, 2013).

Though it wasn’t a question at the time during the trial, my first questions, among many, was that, “Why was the court open for convicting Gideon on the basis of a sole testimony of Henry Cook?” If Gideon was entitled to a lawyer and then was convicted, it would yet be my questions. Aside from Cook’s testimony, very little evidence was there to prove his guilt. Was it that Henry Cook was simply standing on the other side of the road at a precise position that morning? Or maybe among other things, his previous criminal record contributed to it. As far as the court of law is concerned, a lot of people stand opposed to taking previous crimes into consideration. This would make up for a partial jury with their minds already deciding against you due to past records. It would further hamper the sixth amendment, as it states the right for a jury of impartial nature.

My stance is that courts bent sixth amendment in way that it suits themselves as well as the states. As per the sixth amendment’s elaboration, it clearly states all who are accused of crimes have the right for a lawyer, though Supreme Court bent it in a way that people solely accused in capital offences, aside from special circumstances, qualified for having lawyers appointed in their favor. It was presumably because of shortage in terms of lawyers, as well as money and criminals abundance during the time.

At that time, accused did not get lawyers appointed from the court if they were not illiterate, incoherent or under a legal age, set at 18 at that time. It had its root in the 1942 Betts vs. Brady case. Following the Betts vs. Brady ruling, it was stated that incrimination on state level in practice did not need the court for appointing a lawyer in favor of the accused in cases when it was special or great circumstances. At that time, around 40 states implemented guidelines for providing lawyers to people who were charged with different felonies and could not afford to hire lawyers for themselves. Though such guidelines came into application in several states, Florida opted out of it.

As Gideon was serving the sentence, he started to utilize the library of the prison. He started studying the legal system of the US and came to the conclusion that the imprisonment was definitely wrongful as Judge McCrary violated fourteenth and sixth and amendment through not giving him the right to a lawyer. He wrote to a FBI office in his locality but failed to get help. Then he came up with habeas corpus writ to Supreme Court of Florida but again was rejected on grounds that Betts vs. Brady ruling displayed. It was a similar explanation which was provided to him at the time of the original trial held in August, 1961. Following his habeas corpus writ as it failed to get approval from the Supreme Court of Florida State, he once again wrote in 1962. But this time, the letter was a habeas certiorari addressed to Supreme Court of United States. The court gave a response, saying they would definitely hear the case.

In its originality, it was referred to as Gideon vs. Cochran, though Cochran was replaced with Louie L. Wainwright soon as he was the Director of Florida’s Correctional Division. As far as the case was concerned, Abe Fortas got picked as his lawyer while Bruce Jacob was picked as lawyer in charge of prosecution. The defense made arguments that a common citizen was not capable of defending himself in the face of a trained attorney to go on and win a case. Jacob, alongside the prosecution, made claims that in the case of the defense being right, thousands of convicted criminal would need to be let go from jails. They further stressed that fact of the defense attempting to get something passed that was under the states’ authority. It was a very short trial and as it concluded within 3 hours, Supreme Court’s rule went in favor of Gideon. By 1963, Supreme Court of United States ruled 9-0 in favor that any accused defendant without the capability of affording a lawyer possessed the right to have a lawyer appointed from the state’s side (Pudlow, 2013).

Before Gideon’s trial took place, those solely accused of court crimes on the federal level were capable of receiving lawyers appointed by the court (Rashkind, 2003). After the trial, the Betts vs. Brady ruling was overturned on part of Supreme Court. As Gideon won his trial at the Supreme Court, around 2,000 of Florida’s prisoners had to be released following retrials with the help of lawyers. As other prisoners enjoyed their release, Gideon was provided with a retrial.

As per the 1963 ruling, Supreme Court said that being entitled to lawyers was necessary to a person for getting a trial of fair nature (BRIGHT & SANNEH 2013). As Supreme Court passed its ruling in the case of Gideon, he got a second trial for scrutinizing the original case’s legitimacy. He was given two lawyers, the best ones in Miami, though he opted for Fred Turner. At the time of his retrial, Henry Cook’s testimony came under question on grounds of authenticity while Gideon’s own cab driver came up with a statement as well in his defense.

The defense made arguments that the witness, Henry Cook, probably worked as a gatekeeper for real robbers as he attempted to out blames on Gideon for getting out of the situation with ease. In 1963, on March 18, as the jury finished its deliberation within one hour, the only accused Gideon was finally acquitted of every charge against him. He was released following almost two years in the prison convicted for something he did not do.

In the petition of Gideon, he made arguments that fourteenth and sixth amendments were under violation as he was rejected the right to an attorney. The fourteenth amendment clearly says that “None of the states should deprive a person of his life, property or liberty without proper process of the law.” The general way in which the amendment gets interpreted is every other amendment has to be upheld or rights get violated. During my research, I came to believe that Supreme Court came up with right decisions as they decided upon overturning the decision in 1942 Betts vs. Brady. The decision in that case was simply a way to tell people that court held the power for violating rights while you were incapable of doing anything regarding it.

Nowadays, in majority of the areas in terms of justice system for criminal acts, you are provided with a lawyer in case you are incapable of affording. The trial of Gideon established a major landmark regarding the way the legal system is operated run, but even in later times there a number of trials made significant headways to it. Supreme Court expanded the right for a counsel to stage of plea bargaining of prosecution during Missouri vs. Frye and Lafler vs. Cooper (Butler, 2013). Gideon died in 1972, in which year Supreme Court ensured providing lawyers to defendants in insignificant cases as well (Benedict, 2006). During that time the right for counsel got extended to pre-arrest, interrogation and eventually almost every stage the system had.

Following the trial, Robert F. Kennedy, attorney general of United States, stated that it altered the legal history’s course in America:

"If Clarence Earl Gideon, an obscure convict from Florida, in his prison, had not sat with a paper and pencil for writing to Supreme Court, and if the court did not bother to have a look at merits in such a crude petition through bundles of mails coming to the office each day, the machinery of law in America might have been functioning without disturbance. But Gideon eventually wrote that letter while the Supreme Court looked into the case. He was then retried with help from capable defense counsel; was found guilty of nothing and then released from the prison following punishment for two years due to a crime which was not committed by him. And, the total course the legal history was heading got altered.” As I was studying at Ashford Library, I came to conclusion that though a Gideon made sure to reach a landmark, there remain things which require to be changed within legal system of American. Butler stated many accused face under representation as they poor or unable to afford representation (2013). It is true as even in the contemporary society, a lot of people lose cases for not having proper resources.

The problem for Gideon was representation, though for others who have lawyers; this could possibly be not being provided with proper time to get ready with the help of lawyers. Some of the defendants never see lawyers appointed by the court for them till trial day and even after that, there exists limited communication between both parties. But if anyone pays for own lawyers, then constant communication is there between them. Money makes the difference. The court is capable of appointing a lawyer for you, but it is not possible to ensure you are defended well while several controversies rise from it. A great instance of this is Bobby Houston. As some charges against Bobby were dropped, his lawyer failed to notify him.

Justice of the Supreme Court Hugo Black stated following the trial that the lawyers were rather “necessities, but not luxuries.” The justice was correct as lawyers are needed for court trial of fair nature. Many of the common citizens were not capable of defending themselves against people with years in the professional field. It is quite impossible for someone who possesses almost no knowledge of the Bill of Rights, Constitution or even their own rights would be victorious in trials at the court. Utilizing the ruling in Betts vs. Brady, the courts turned the legal system into a one-sided one and left most of the defendants without any defense. Many people thought this was an easy case to decide as the decision had to happen after Supreme Court was planning for an overturn in the decision of Betts vs. Brady in any case. However, that is not entirely true. Nearly all of the prisoners wrote for habeas corpus writs but a handful was given any attention. In numbers, around 1 among 500 habeas corpus’ on an average were given attention and trialed. If it could have been that easy, then the habeas corpus writ with Supreme Court of Florida could not fail.

Clarence Gideon never thought of giving up and challenged the decision even after being denied fair trials. After the trial, the legal system of America shaped the way we now see it. People are provided with fair trials and their representatives are essential by the constitutional law. The Gideon vs. Wainwright changed the legal system as well as lives of many forever.


Aronovitz, T. (2003). Gideon--Then and Now. Florida Bar Journal, 77(3), 6.

Benedict, M.L. (2006). The Blessings of Liberty: A Concise History of the Constitution of the

United States (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Publishing

BRIGHT, S.B., & SANNEH, S.M. (2013). Fifty Years of Defiance and Resistance After Gideon v. Wainwright. Yale Law Journal, 122(8), 2150-2174

Butler, P. D. (2013). Poor People Lose: Gideon and the Critique of Rights. Yale Law Journal, 122(8), 2176-2204.

JACOB, B. R. (2013). 50 YEARS LATER: MEMORIES OF GIDEON V. WAINWRIGHT. (Cover story). Florida Bar Journal, 87(3), 10-17.

Pudlow, J. (2013). Gideon's Legacy: Exonerating the Innocent. Florida Bar Journal, 87(3), 18-20

Rashkind, P. M. (2003). Gideon v. Wainwright. Florida Bar Journal

Robin, J. (n.d.). Clarence Earl Gideon. Retrieved from: clinic/wrongfulconvictions/exonerations/fl/clarence-earl-gideon.html

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page