COLUMN: The case that transformed the judicial system turns 50

  • Posted: Monday, March 18, 2013 11:12 p.m.

“In our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, could not be assured a fair trial, unless counsel is provided for him. Lawyers in criminal courts are a necessity not a luxury. This is the obvious truth.”

— Justice Hugo Black on March 18, 1963, in the United States Supreme Court case of Gideon versus Wainwright.

ROCK HILL — This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gideon case. This decision set in motion the greatest transformation to the American criminal justice system in history. At the same time it brought forth a profound and dramatic shift in social justice. The recognition that every person accused of a crime in this country whether wealthy or poor is guaranteed the right to counsel. At its core, Gideon is the promise of justice for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of our society. The story of Gideon reveals the American judicial system at its very best. And it reaffirms the basic sense of human justice on which it is founded.

On June 3, 1961, between midnight and 8 a.m., a burglary occurred at the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Fla.. An intruder gained entry by breaking into the front door, and while in the Bay Harbor Pool Room smashed a cigarette machine, and stole a large sum of coins out of the cash register. Later that day, Henry Cook told the police that he had seen Clarence Gideon in the pool room around 5:30 a.m. leaving with a wine bottle and a large sum of coins that filled his pockets. Based on this accusation alone, the police arrested Clarence Gideon for breaking and entering, a felony in the State of Florida.

When Gideon appeared in court he asked Judge Robert McCrary, the District Court Judge in Panama City, to appoint a lawyer to his case because he was too poor to hire one himself. Judge McCrary denied his request and told Gideon that under the Florida law the only time the court could appoint an attorney to a defendant is when the person was charged with a capital offense. That day, the District Attorney William Harris tried the case for the State against Clarence Gideon. The jury deliberated less than 10 minutes and found Gideon guilty of the charge of breaking and entering. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

From his prison cell at the Florida State Penitentiary, Gideon wrote in pencil and on prison stationary his letter to the U.S. Supreme Court. He appealed to the court in a suit against Louis Wainwright, the head of the Florida Department of Corrections. He argued that he had been denied counsel and that his Sixth Amendment right as applied to the States through the 14th Amendment had been violated. The Supreme Court decided to hear his case. Fortunately for Gideon, Abe Fortas was appointed to represent him. Fortas at that time was a brilliant Washington appellate lawyer,who would later become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

It is important to remember that at the time of Gideon the controlling case was Betts v. Brady, a 1942 United States Supreme Court case which held that the right to counsel was not essential to a fair trial, and that the states were required to provide counsel to indigent defendants only if the case involved special circumstances, such as the defendant was illiterate, mentally retarded, or the court deemed the defendant to be incapable of defending himself, and of course in capital cases.

Abe Fortas attacked the rationale of the Betts decision. In his brief Fortas wrote, “An accused person cannot effectively defend himself without a lawyer, the defendant cannot properly evaluate the legality of his arrest, he cannot determine the validity of the indictment, a defendant cannot determine whether a search and seizure has been lawful, or whether a confession is admissible. At trial the defendant is not qualified to make objections to evidence or cross-examine witnesses.” In short, Fortas wrote, “the assistance of counsel is essential to a fair trial and required by due process of law.”

The Supreme Court agreed and on March 18, 1963, the court held that every person charged with a felony offense is entitled to be represented by counsel, even if they are too poor to hire one. Gideon’s case was remanded for a new trial. The retrial took place on August 3, 1963, five months after the Supreme Court ruling.

At his retrial, Gideon was represented by Fred Turner, a Panama City defense attorney. In the second trial, Turner picked apart the testimony of the State’s key witness, Henry Cook. In his opening and closing statements ,Turner suggested that Cook had been the lookout for a group of young men who actually broke into the pool hall, and carried out wine and a large sum of coins. Turner also called to the stand the cab driver, Preston Grey, who picked Gideon up that morning of the incident. Grey testified that Gideon was not carrying any wine, money or coins of any sort, when he picked him up outside the pool hall. This testimony completely contradicted Henry Cook’s story that he had observed Gideon walk from the telephone booth to the cab with a bottle of wine and large sums of coins. The jury acquitted Gideon after one hour of deliberation.

None of this would be possible however, if it were not for Gideon and the lawyers who championed his cause 50 years ago. As Attorney General Robert Kennedy said in 1963 several months after the Gideon decision, “if an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in his prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court, and if the Court had not taken the trouble to look for merit 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 retried 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 American legal history has been changed.”

Harry Dest is the 16th Circuit Public Defender, which includes York and Union counties. He is chairman of the South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense.

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