: The founding fathers, after much heated debate and in secrecy, formed this country with one sole document, the
Constitution, which they wrote with great wisdom, foresight, and painstaking compromise . This 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 are
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, which gives a
person accused of a crime, to have a lawyer 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 or immunities 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, 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