Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Clarence Gideon Story

Gideon's Impact

Four decades after the Supreme Court's Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, legal experts still parry over the policy, politics, personalities and implications of the case.

Louie L. Wainwright, Director of Corrections
Louie L. Wainwright, Director of Corrections

"Is Gideon a hero?" Prof. Melvin I. Urofsky of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University wrote in an e-mail exchange with Crime Library. "It depends on perspective. I think the fact that he just kept gnawing at the system believing he had a right to counsel, and that he eventually won, makes him a hero of sorts. Was he a nice person? No."

Kathryn Kase, a Texas attorney who co-chairs the Indigent Defense Committee of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, wrote via e-mail that Gideon had earned a place in the pantheon of important American legal figures.

"From my perspective, Gideon is a hero because: (1) he got [a Supreme Court hearing], which is incredibly difficult, even for lawyers to obtain, and (2) through his case, he enabled Abe Fortas to show what happened to non-capital defendants who did not have counsel."

Urofsky said the ruling was inevitable because it was an open secret that the Warren Court wanted to overturn the 1942 Betts decision.

Kase disagreed.

"I don't think the case outcome was inevitable," she said. "While capital clients had a right to appointed counsel at that time, there was no consistent right to counsel in non-capital cases. Further, courts were loath then — just as they are now — to expand rights in such a way that required the expenditure of public funds."

Kase noted that eight in 10 people charged across the spectrum of the criminal justice system qualify for court-appointed attorneys.

"The system has adjusted well," Urofsky wrote. "Public defenders are way overworked, but that is not because of Gideon. It is because the states have under-funded their entire criminal justice systems, resulting in, among other things, very long delays between arrest and trial.

"Moreover," he continued, "a goodly number of criminal cases, whether using private attorneys or public defenders, are pled out. The person is guilty, knows it, and the lawyer knows that there is no chance in hell of getting an acquittal. So the smart thing to do is to plead guilty to a lesser offense and get a shorter sentence. This saves everyone time and trouble. Not a pretty idea, but one that works."

Attorney Kase said the essential issue of the Gideon case — the right to competent counsel — is more important today than ever.

"All criminal cases carry serious consequences these days, even if the crime charged is less than a felony," she said. "For example, students who plead guilty to misdemeanor marijuana possession will lose their federal student loans. If you're not a citizen, you can be deported for any misdemeanor conviction for a crime of 'moral turpitude,' which can be as innocuous as shoplifting. In some states, engaging in 'streaking' requires you to register as a sex offender — even if the offense is 'only' a misdemeanor and you didn't serve any jail time. A charge doesn't have to be a felony to carry life-changing consequences."

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