Fulfilling the Promise of Gideon

By Sobel, Allan D. | Judicature, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview

Fulfilling the Promise of Gideon


Sobel, Allan D., Judicature


During the past three years, the American Judicature Society has devoted substantial resources to promoting improvements to the administration of the criminal justice system. Repeated disclosures of wrongful convictions have led to the inescapable conclusion that unless we address the systemic causes of these convictions, more will surely surface in the years to come. It is fundamentally unfair to convict a factually innocent person. Moreover, allowing a defective system to continue pumping out wrongful convictions does nothing to help build trust and confidence in the judiciary.

In our recent work, AJS has observed that, in addition to other contributing factors, inadequate assistance of defense counsel is a prevalent factor in wrongful convictions. Since we are now 40 plus years past Gideon v. Wainwright, I decided to go back into the archives of AJS to see what was viewed at the time as the promise of Gideon, which as you may know held that the states are obligated to provide appointed legal counsel to criminal defendants unable to hire counsel.

Fortunately, I found in the January 1964 issue of Judicature the complete text of a speech given by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963 after Gideon was decided at a conference on indigent criminal defense. The attorney general initially paid tribute to Mr. Gideon, described as an obscure Florida convict who sat down in his jail cell "with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court" and to the Court for reviewing his crude petition "among the bundles of mail it must receive every day." Kennedy remarked:

But Gideon did write that letter, the court did look into his case; he was retried with the help of competent counsel, found not guilty and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit-and the whole course of American legal history has been changed.

I know of few better examples than that of a democratic principle in action.

Kennedy personally took on the job of fully exploring the promise of Gideon. In his remarks, the attorney general stated:

The Department of Justice rccognixes that in its role as the criminal prosecutor for the federal government it has a special responsibility for the development of procedures that will result in an adequate defense of all indigents accused of crime.

We have endeavored to look at the problem in its broadest aspects and determine all the elements involved in the concept of adequate defense.

Kennedy appointed a committee to study all issues relating to poverty and the administration of federal criminal justice. Ultimately, the Justice Department drafted and strongly supported legislation calling for major reforms based on the Alien Committee's recommendations, which included:

1. The establishment of an "adequate defense standard under which representation in a criminal case is recognized as involving more than a lawyer alone. …

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