Gideon vs Wainwright

The framers formed this country with one sole document, the Constitution, which
they wrote with great wisdom and foresight. This bountiful wisdom arose from the unjust
treatment of King George to which the colonists were subject. Among these violations of
the colonists' rights were inequitable trials that made a mockery of justice. As a result, a
fair trial of the accused was a right given to the citizens along with other equities that the
framers instilled in every other facet of this country’s government. These assurances of
the citizens’ rights stated in the bill of rights.
In the Sixth Amendment, it is stated that, “In all criminal prosecutions, the
accused shall enjoy the right...to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” A first
reading of this phrase one might be think that this right, that which gives a person
accused of a crime to have lawyers for his defense, is common knowledge being that it is
among the most basic rights given to the citizenry of the public. However, the simple
manner in which this amendment is phrased creates a “gray area”, and subject to
interpretation under different circumstances. The legitimacy of the right to mount a legal
defense is further obscured by the Fourteenth Amendment which states, “No State shall
make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges of citizens of the United
States.” As a result, many questions begin to arise which seek to determine the true right
of the accused to the assistance of counsel. Should legal counsel be provided by the
government if the accused lacks the funds to assemble a counsel for his defense? Or, on
the other hand, does this amendment set the responsibility of assembling a defensive
counsel on the accused even if he or she lacks the funds to do so?
Also, do the states have the right to make their own legislation regarding the right
of the indigent accused to have counsel appointed to them in the state trials, or does the
Fourteenth Amendment prevent this? The Supreme Court was faced with answering these
questions in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright.
In June of 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon, a fifty year old petty thief, drifter, and
gambler who had spent much of his life in and out of jail was arrested in Panama City
Florida. He was charged with breaking into a poolroom one night in an effort to steal
beer, Coke, and coins from a cigarette machine (Goodman 62).
From the outset, Gideon insisted that he was innocent. His trial commenced in a
Florida courtroom in August of that year. Gideon informed the Judge that he was not
prepared for the trial to begin because he had not assembled a legal counsel in his
defense. He then requested that the court appoint counsel to represent him (Goodman
62). The Judge responded with the following statement:
”Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you
in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time
the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a defendant is when that
person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have
to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case”
(372 U.S. 335)
The trial continued, and Gideon directed his defense; but his efforts were futile as one
could expect from a common man with no legal education or experience. The jury
convicted him of the felonious charges and gave Gideon the maximum five year sentence
(Goodman 62). At the time of Gideon’s trial in the Florida court the right to legal counsel
ensured by the Sixth Amendment was only applicable to federal cases, and states had the
right to handle the matter of the appointment of legal counsel to the defense in state cases
at their discretion (Asch, 135). This practice was an effect of the outcome of the United
States Supreme Court case of Betts v. Brady decided in 1942. In this case, an
unemployed farm worker in Maryland named Smith Betts was charged with robbery
requested that the court appoint counsel to his defense. The judge denied this request on
the grounds that in that county it was not practice in that county for the court to appoint
counsel to poor defendants only in capital cases. Like Gideon, Betts conducted his own
defense and was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. Betts sent an appeal to
the Supreme Court, but the Court ruled against