Gideon v. Wainwright
A poor defendant’s right to an attorney was established in a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case called Gideon v. Wainwright.
The case involving a low income man accused of petty larceny of a pool hall resulted in a wholesale change in the way the poor are tried in state and federal courts, overriding the previous precedent, Betts v. Brady. The latter case held that courts could be selective about appointing public defenders, particularly for those who didn’t comprehend legal proceedings, and that state courts were not obligated to provide defense counsel to poor defendants.
In finding in favor of Gideon, the U.S. Supreme Court called upon the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution to determine that the due process clause requires a defendant to a fair trial and that the requirement for the government to provide an attorney applied to state as well as federal court proceedings. The decision solidified procedural standards for all courts.
When he was tried in Florida state court for breaking into a pool room and stealing alcohol and money, Clarence Earl Gideon asked for a defense attorney. The judge of the trial court refused, saying that the charge against him was not significant enough to merit free legal representation. When Gideon was sentenced to 5 years in prison for the crime, he wrote an appeal in pencil from inside his cell.
The 1960s were a time of legal and civil activism. Many were concerned about the state of civil rights in the country where minorities and the poor had been systematically denied equal access to education, jobs, and legal help. Gideon’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court was represented pro bono by attorney Abe Fortas, a future member of the court.
Following the justices’ unanimous finding that Gideon was tried unfairly due to the absence of his requested defense attorney, his case was remanded to Florida to be retried, this time with a public defender. At the same time, about 2,000 Florida cases were sent back to the courts due to their previous lack of defense attorneys for charges that didn’t rise to “capital crimes”.