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Clarence Earl Gideon

The police in Panama City, Florida, arrested Clarence Earl Gideon in 1961, accusing him of breaking into a pool hall and taking money from vending machines. When he was brought before a judge for his arraignment, he asked the judge to appoint an attorney to represent him because he could not afford to hire one. The judge denied that request, informing him that under Florida law counsel could be appointed only when someone was charged with a capital offense.

Gideon did his best to defend himself. He made an opening statement to the jury, cross-examined the state’s witnesses, presented witnesses in his own defense, and made a short closing argument in which he told the jury that he was innocent of the charges. On August 4, 1961, the jury convicted him of felony breaking and entering and misdemeanor theft. The judge sentenced him to five years in prison.

Clarence Earl Gideon

Without the means to hire an attorney to file an appeal, Gideon wrote his own petition and filed it in the Florida Supreme Court. He argued that the failure of the trial court to appoint counsel for his defense denied him the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Florida Supreme Court denied his petition.

Undaunted, Gideon petitioned the United States Supreme Court, and the Court agreed to appoint counsel to represent him. The Supreme Court found that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is applicable to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. According to the Supreme Court, the trial court violated Gideon’s due process rights when it failed to appoint counsel. The Court recognized the obvious truth that without counsel for the defense there can be no assurance of a fair trial. Thus, the justices reversed Gideon’s conviction on March 18, 1963, and sent his case back to the Florida Supreme Court. The state of Florida retried Gideon, but an appointed attorney represented him at the second trial. The jury acquitted him.

Celebrating over 50 years of the landmark US Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), guaranteeing your right to counsel.