Friday, March 15, 2013

Gideon and the Right to Counsel

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Gideon v. Wainwright and directed state courts to provide an attorney to indigent defendants in criminal cases who have been charged with a serious crime and are not able to pay for an attorney. 

In 1961, Clarence Gideon was charged with burglary in Florida.  When it came time for his trial, he asked the judge for a court appointed attorney to represent him because he could not afford to pay for one.  The judge declined to give Gideon an attorney so Gideon represented himself at trial.  He lost and was sentenced to serve five years in prison. 

While serving his prison term, Gideon went to the prison library and wrote an appeal with a pencil on prison stationery to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the judge’s refusal to grant him court-appointed counsel. 

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Gideon and granted him the right to a new trial while represented by a court appointed attorney.  The attorney skillfully uncovered exculpatory evidence and cross-examined the prosecution’s witnesses to expose Gideon’s innocence.  The jury took less than one hour acquit Gideon. 

As a result of the Gideon case, Hawaii and every state in the country now pay for an attorney to represent indigent defendants charged with crimes. If you have been charged with a crime and cannot afford an attorney, ask the judge for a court appointed attorney

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