Gideon v. Wainwright: How a pitiable petty thief came to write his name in the Great Book of Law
December 29, 2013
By H. Brandt Ayers

His name will forever be linked with a transformation of our legal system — the principle that, though you are poor, weak or a member of a despised caste or party — you have a right to your own counsel when accused of a crime.
He was the central character in a book by the legendary New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis and Henry Fonda portrayed him in a film version of the book. And in the Bible a young man of the same name overthrew the Midianites with only 300 blowing trumpets that sounded like an army.
Clarence Earl Gideon stares cockeyed from a police blotter photo through large glasses, which give his thin face, straight nose and narrow mouth a rather goofy expression. He was born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1910. He lost his father when he was three, quit school after the eighth grade, ran away from home at 15 and took up a career as a homeless petty criminal.
He did prison time in two states, found menial jobs in Texas and Florida, and married four times. The last of his wives stuck with him through three years of treatment for tuberculosis and his consequent celebrity.
The story that lifted a pitiable nobody to legal fame began on June 3, 1961, in Panama City, Florida, when someone broke into a beer joint and pool hall, smashing a cigarette machine and record player to take coins, and allegedly helped himself to money from the cash register.
A witness told police that he had seen Gideon at 5:30 a.m. leaving the pool hall with a bottle of wine and pockets jingling with coins. With a rap sheet as long as Gideon’s, it is easy to understand why the authorities would take the word of a single witness, arrest, indict and put him on trial.
Too poor to afford an attorney, he asked the trial judge to appoint counsel to defend him. With evident reluctance, the judge said Florida law required the appointment of counsel only in death penalty cases.
He acted as his own counsel as well as he could with no money and no investigators to support him. He didn’t stand a chance. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
If the story worked out as it often does, reform school kid with a list of felony convictions, nowhere jobs and three failed marriages, does his time, gets out and before long he is back in prison.
The story would have played out as predicted, but for the fact that somewhere in the otherwise desolate life of this obscure man, someone or something had planted in him the spark of a fighter.
He knew he was innocent and thought it was unfair to doom a poor man to fight for his freedom alone against the vast machinery of the state. He began to study the law in prison.
After two years of false imprisonment and study he wrote in pencil a multi-page brief, which the Florida Supreme Court summarily dismissed. He then sent his brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.
And here is a tantalizing mystery. Someone with authority, a justice or a law clerk, found that crude document, took the time to understand it was serious and distributed it among the justices who decided to hear his case.
The Supreme Court not only appointed counsel, they asked a super lawyer, Abe Fortas, who would one day sit with them on the high court, to take his case. Fortas did his job well and got a unanimous opinion for Gideon.
Justice Hugo Black of Alabama wrote the 1963 opinion in Gideon v. Wainwright. In his opinion, Black used a tool he had found and the Court eventually adopted, that all of the protections of the Bill of Rights apply to the states through the 14th Amendment.
It stands to reason that the Bill of Rights protected citizens from government abuse of due process, freedom of religion, speech and the press in federal cases, it should offer citizens the same protection from abuses by state governments, Black reasoned.
In Gideon he found that the defendant had been denied Sixth Amendment right of due process by forcing an innocent man to fight virtually unarmed for his freedom against the powers of the state.
In spare language Justice Black drew a word picture of balanced judicial scales. “This seems to us an obvious truth. Governments both federal and state … spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of a crime.
“Similarly, there are few defendants, few indeed, who fail to get the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses.” This unwritten law of balanced scales makes defense attorneys “not luxuries, but necessities.”
Here, Justice Black, known for his desire to break the shackles of British Common Law and make for Americans greater freedoms than were allowed British citizens, indirectly asserts the unique nature of American law. “The right to counsel of one charged with crime may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours.”
In order to make the case accessible to the ordinary citizen, Black’s opinion quoted an earlier decision by Justice Sutherland, “Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law.
“He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he have a perfect one … he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.”
In this short opinion, Judge Black shows why he was regarded as an intellectual leader of the Court: he wrote a declaration of independence from British Common law, used the 14th Amendment to make essential freedoms apply to the states and reasserted the very American right that even a poor or despised citizen has the right to a fair trial.
And that is how a goofy-looking petty criminal and self-taught lawyer came to stand in the pantheon of law with the other icons of justice.
H. Brandt Ayers is Chairman and Publisher of The Anniston Star and the author of the recently released memoir “In Love With Defeat.” published by NewSouth Books, Montgomery, Alabama.
blog comments powered by Disqus