Clarence Earl Gideon
Clarence Earl Gideon (August 30, 1910 – January 18, 1972) was a poor drifter and amateur attorney accused in a Florida state court of felony theft. His case resulted in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, holding that a criminal defendant who cannot afford to hire a lawyer must be provided one at no cost.
At Gideon’s first trial, he represented himself and was convicted. After the Supreme Court ruled that the state had to provide defense counsel for the indigent, Florida retried Gideon. At his second trial, which took place in August 1963, with a lawyer representing him and bringing out for the jury the weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, Gideon was acquitted.
Arrest, conviction, and Gideon v. Wainwright
On June 3, 1961, $5 in change and a few bottles of beer and soda were stolen from the Pool Room, a pool hall and beer bar that belonged to Ira Strickland Jr. Strickland also alleged that $50 was taken from the jukebox. Henry Cook, a 22-year-old resident who lived nearby, told the police that he had seen Gideon walk out of the bar with a bottle of wine and his pockets filled with coins, and then get into a cab. Gideon was later arrested in a tavern.
Being too poor to pay for counsel, Gideon was forced to defend himself at his trial after being denied a lawyer by the trial judge, Robert McCrary Jr. On August 4, 1961, Gideon was convicted of breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny, and on August 25, Judge McCrary gave Gideon the maximum sentence, five years in prison.
Gideon v. Wainwright
While incarcerated, Gideon studied the American legal system. He concluded that Judge McCrary had violated his constitutional right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, applicable to the State of Florida through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. He then wrote to an FBI office in Florida and then to the Florida Supreme Court, but he was denied help. In January 1962, he mailed a five-page petition (petition for writ of certiorari) to the Supreme Court of the United States, asking the nine justices to consider his complaint. The Supreme Court, in reply, agreed to hear his appeal. Originally, the case was called Gideon v. Cochran and was argued on January 15, 1963. Gideon v. Cochran was changed to Gideon v. Wainwright after Louie L. Wainwright replaced H. G. Cochran as the director of the Florida Division of Corrections, a fact made known to the Supreme Court clerk by Florida Attorney General Bruce Jacob.
Abe Fortas (later a Supreme Court justice) was assigned to represent Gideon. Jacob was assigned to argue against Gideon. Fortas argued that a common man with no training in law could not go up against a trained lawyer and win, and that “you cannot have a fair trial without counsel.” Jacob argued that the issue at hand was a state issue, not federal; the practice of only appointing counsel under “special circumstances” in non-capital cases sufficed; that thousands of convictions would have to be thrown out if it were changed; and that Florida had followed for 21 years “in good faith” the 1942 Supreme Court ruling in Betts v. Brady.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously (9-0) in Gideon’s favor in a landmark decision on March 18, 1963.
About 2,000 convicted people in Florida alone were freed as a result of the Gideon decision; Gideon himself was not freed. He instead received another trial.
He chose W. Fred Turner to be his lawyer for his retrial, which occurred on August 5, 1963, five months after the Supreme Court ruling. During the trial, Turner picked apart the testimony of eyewitness Henry Cook, and in his opening and closing statements suggested the idea that Cook likely had been a lookout for a group of young men who had stolen the beer and coins from Bay Harbor Pool Room. (Turner had been Cook’s lawyer in previous cases.)
Turner also received a statement from the taxicab driver who transported Gideon from the Bay Harbor Pool Room to a bar in Panama City, Florida, stating that Gideon was carrying neither wine, beer nor Coke when he picked him up, even though Cook testified that he watched Gideon walk from the pool hall to the phone, then wait for a cab. Furthermore, although in the first trial Gideon had not cross-examined the driver about his statement that Gideon had told him to keep the taxi ride a secret, Turner’s cross-examination revealed that Gideon had said that to the cab driver previously because “he had trouble with his wife.”
The jury acquitted Gideon after one hour of deliberation.
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