We need to know about the people in the world or even just in America that had done something to significantly change our lives. Right now there are lots of people that get in trouble with the law and can not afford to pay for an attorney to represent them in court. So, many times the proper procedures are not followed and the proper papers are not filed on time. Should it be so complicated? No, but it can be. It has been 50 years since someone dared to write a handwritten letter to the Supreme Court and to simply ask for some changes to the court experience and the letter was read and a response was given.
There was a Supreme Court ruling on the issue of States having to have to provide Lawyers for all poor people in serious criminal cases like a felony trial. The hand written letter by a guy in jail to the Supreme Court reversed a law that was there since 1942. It was a significant decision because it opened the door for many people incarcerated. It was a unanimous opinion that permitted many now jailed people to ask for new trials.
The specific case was Gideon vs, Wainwright 372 U.S. 335 from 1963. Clarence Earl Gideon was an unlikely hero. He was a man with an eighth-grade education who ran away from home when he was in middle school. He spent much of his early adult life as a drifter, spending time in and out of prisons for nonviolent crimes.
Gideon was charged with breaking and entering with the intent to commit a misdemeanor, which is a felony under Florida law. He was accused this time of stealing liquor and petty cash from a pool hall in Panama City, Florida in June of 1961. At trial, Gideon appeared in court without an attorney. In open court, he asked the judge to appoint counsel for him because he could not afford an attorney. The trial judge denied Gideon’s request because Florida law only permitted appointment of counsel for poor defendants charged with capital offenses like a murder trial.
At trial, Gideon represented himself – he made an opening statement to the jury, cross-examined the prosecution’s witnesses, presented witnesses in his own defense, declined to testify himself, and made arguments emphasizing his innocence. Despite his efforts, the jury found Gideon guilty and he was sentenced to five years imprisonment.
Gideon sought relief from his conviction by filing a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Florida Supreme Court. In his petition, Gideon challenged his conviction and sentence on the ground that the trial judge’s refusal to appoint counsel violated Gideon’s constitutional rights. The Florida Supreme Court denied Gideon’s petition.
Gideon next filed a handwritten petition in the Supreme Court of the United States in 1962. The Court agreed to hear the case to resolve the question of whether the right to counsel guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution applies to defendants in state court. The amazing thing is that the Supreme Court agreed with the drifter and even appointed him a powerful influential Attorney to represent him.
The high court granted Gideon’s request and appointed the well known Washington Attorney and future Supreme Court Judge Justice Abe Fortas to handle Gideon’s appeal. The conviction was reversed. And so it happened that half a century ago the court ruled unanimously in Gideon’s favor. It was news that he heard in his prison cell in Florida. Soon he was released a free man. He set for all citizens an interpretation of the Constitution that helps all citizens in America the right to have an Attorney and that now the courts offer for free representation to help all citizens to a fair trial.
He died in 1972 at the age of 61 not before visiting the Supreme Court that has forever made his name synonymous with a Constitutional Right. Know your rights and know the names of the people that helped all of us have rights in this country.