Gideon v. Wainwright: 50 Years Later

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ March 20, 2013

These days it is common knowledge that defendants in all criminal cases are entitled to a defense attorney, even if they cannot afford one. In fact, it’s right in the Miranda warning that nearly every American citizen is familiar with:

“You have the right to an attorney.
If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”

Prior to March of 1963, however, an indigent defendant was not entitled to a lawyer paid for by the government. The only cases in which indigent defendants had the right to counsel were capital cases and felony cases with “special circumstances”, as defined in Powell v. Alabama (1932). But in 1963, Gideon v. Wainwright incorporated the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to the states via the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Clarence Earl Gideon, too poor to hire a lawyer, was found guilty of breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny. He was sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison and felt that his trial was unfair because he did not have an attorney. After having his writ of habeas corpus denied by the Florida Supreme Court, Gideon filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. Future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas represented Gideon, who was given a new trial. More importantly, the Court ruled that indigent defendants are entitled to a defense attorney in all cases. Armed with a court-appointed lawyer, Gideon was found not guilty at his second trial (he was found guilty in the first trial without a defense lawyer).

As the 50th anniversary of the Gideon v. Wainwright decision approaches, it is important to remember that you should always have a lawyer when facing criminal prosecution. In Gideon’s case, it was the difference between five years in prison and an acquittal. If you have been charged with a crime, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney at Fairlie & Lippy today.

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