Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Gideon Refused to Go Away: Landmark Case Upheld Right to Counsel

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Gideon Refused to Go Away: Landmark Case Upheld Right to Counsel

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago this month, a poor man changed the country.

In 1961 Clarence Earl Gideon, a man who had the misfortune to be poor and in the wrong place at the wrong time, was arrested for burglary in Florida.

Gideon was charged with burglary of a pool hall and entering a pool room with the intent to commit a misdemeanor, which was considered a felony under Florida law.

When Gideon asked the court for an attorney, the court told him no. That act, Oklahoma County Public Defender Bob Ravitz said, set the stage for a monumental U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

"Gideon was a game changer," Ravitz said. "It was a huge decision."

In an essay written for The Journal Record, Ravitz recounted the courtroom exchange between Gideon and the Florida court:

"The court: Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the state of Florida, the only time the court can appoint counsel to represent a defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint counsel to defend you in this case."

Gideon's reply was simple and direct: "The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel."

"Without counsel," Ravitz said, "Gideon was convicted and sentenced to five years' imprisonment."

But Gideon refused to go away.

While incarcerated, he took advantage of the prison library and, writing in pencil, drafted an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. In that appeal Gideon wrote that he had been denied counsel and his Sixth Amendment rights. The case became known as Gideon v. Wainwright.

The court agreed to review the case and appointed Abe Fortas - who would later serve as a justice on the high court - as Gideon's attorney. On March 18, 1963, the court ruled that Gideon was entitled to counsel. The court ruled that right to counsel was required by the Constitution.

"The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours," the court said. …

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