Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Clarence Gideon Story

Against All Odds


Gideon's appeal was a quixotic act by a man who probably did not know the odds he was up against.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court rejects all but about 100 of the 7,000 appeals it receives each term. Forty years ago, the court received about a third as many appeals, but it was no more likely to accept a case.

Clarence Gideon had no way of knowing it, but his was the right case at the right time. For years, constitutional lawyers had been anticipating just such an appeal over the issue of free legal counsel for indigents accused of a crime.

The Sixth Amendment was interpreted by the high court to guarantee free counsel to anyone charged with a federal crime who was unable to afford a lawyer. But that right had not been applied to most crimes tried in state courts.

The Supreme Court had ruled in the infamous Scottsboro Boys case, in which seven young black men were accused in 1932 of raping two white women, that taxpayer-funded lawyers must be provided in cases in which the accused might face execution if convicted.

But in 1942, the court made the controversial ruling that a Maryland judge was right to deny free counsel to a farm worker, Smith Betts, charged with robbery. The justices said courts could deny free lawyers in non-capital cases unless defendants met "special circumstances," such as illiteracy, feeblemindedness or youth.

Nevertheless, by 1961, 37 states and many cities had adopted policies to provide lawyers to indigent defendants charged with felonies. Florida was not among them.

Constitutional lawyers suspected that the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren was waiting for the right appeal to come along to challenge Florida and the other states. The justices found it in Gideon's humble petition.

The court directed Florida Attorney General Richard Ervin to respond to Gideon's handwritten petition with an opposition brief. The 13-page document, prepared by Bruce Jacob, one of Ervin's assistants, argued that Gideon was not entitled to a lawyer because he did not meet the "special circumstances" provision of the 1942 Betts ruling.

Jacob wrote, "Petitioner Gideon has made no affirmative showing of any exceptional circumstances which would entitle him to counsel under the Fourteenth Amendment."

The court clerk sent Gideon a copy of the AG's brief. A few weeks later, Gideon replied, with his customary misspellings:

"Petitioner can not make any pretense of being able to answer the learned Attorney General of the State of Florida because the petitioner is not an attorney or vessed [versed] in law nor does not have the law books to copy down the decisions of this Court ... It makes no difference how old I am or what color I am or what church I belong too if any. The question is I did not get a fair trial. The question is very simple. I requested the court to appoint me attorney and the court refused. All countrys try to give there Citizens a fair trial and see to it that they have counsel."

The Supreme Court apparently was convinced by Gideon's reply. It agreed to hear his appeal. The case would become known as Gideon vs. Wainwright, after Louie L. Wainwright, director of the Florida Division of Corrections.


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