Gideon v Wainwright Fifty Years Later

In 1961, 51 year old Charles Gideon was charged with stealing wine and money from vending machines at a Panama City, Florida pool hall. At his arraignment, Mr. Gideon asked the judge to appoint him an attorney, as he was not able to afford one. However, in 1961, the State of Florida, as with other states in the nation, only provided criminal defendants with a Court appointed attorney in “capital” cases such as rape or murder charges.

Mr. Gideon was convicted of the larceny charges and sentenced to jail. The Florida Supreme Court upheld his conviction. While Mr. Gideon was incarcerated, he wrote out an appeal himself in pencil using prison stationery, and sent the appeal to the United States Supreme Court, which decided to hear the case. Upon receiving Mr. Gideon’s “pro se” appeal in 1962, the Court appointed Abe Fortas, who would become a U.S. Supreme Court justice two years later, to represent him. Gideon’s’ timing was excellent, as at the time of his appeal, the Supreme Court was seeking to address the issue of indigent defense.

Two months after hearing arguments in the case, entitled Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court and ruled that all criminal defendants are entitled to be represented by counsel, even in non-capital cases, based upon the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of due process. Judge Black, writing for the Court, stated: “In our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into Court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.” Judge Black also quoted from an earlier Supreme Court opinion, in Powell v. Alabama, in which Justice Sutherland stated: “The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law…He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, through he may be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.”

The case was sent back to the Florida state Court five months later. Mr. Gideon was assigned a new lawyer, who was able to dismantle the prosecution’s case. The jury’s verdict: Not guilty. And history was made.

50 years later, although Gideon is a landmark case and was conceived with tremendous optimism, it is an unfortunate truth that many defendants who cannot afford to pay for an attorney are provided counsel by overworked and underfunded Legal Aid offices and public defenders who do not have the staff and resources to match the budgets of the prosecution. This is due to major budget cuts across the U.S. This often leads to plea bargains in cases where if there were sufficient staff and resources available to the defense, the prosecutors might be forced to meet their burden to prove each and every aspect of the case beyond a reasonable doubt at a trial. So the promise of Gideon back in 1963 has been hindered by budgetary considerations in 2013.

Contact the Westchester County Criminal Defense Lawyers if you or a family member has been charged with a crime or traffic infraction for a free consultation to discuss the charges against you and your legal options.