Clarence Earl Gideon

Denial of counsel, a wrongful conviction, a landmark decision

Before dawn on June 3, 1961, in a case that would make history, someone broke into the Bay Harbor Poolroom in Panama City, Florida, and stole four bottles of wine, two dozen bottles of beer and soda pop, and some change from a jukebox and cigarette machine. On a tip from a man named Henry Cook, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested and charged with the crime. Before his trial the following August, Gideon, a 50-year-old indigent white man with a record for burglary, asked Judge Robert L. McCrary, Jr. to appoint a lawyer to represent him. McCrary rejected the request, advising Gideon that appointed counsel was provided only in capital cases. Gideon thus represented himself. Based solely on Cook’s testimony, a Bay County jury deliberated only an hour before returning a verdict of guilty. McCrary sentenced Gideon to five years in prison.

After Florida courts denied relief, Gideon mailed the U.S. Supreme Court a petition for a writ of certiorari, written in pencil on prison stationery, asserting that the denial of counsel deprived him of rights guaranteed by the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court received the petition on January 8, 1962, and granted it on June 4, agreeing to revisit a precedent set 23 years earlier in a case known as Betts v. Brady. In that case, the court held six-three that the appointment of counsel was required only in capital cases and under “special circumstances,” such as when a defendant was mentally retarded.

Abe Fortas, a renowned Washington attorney, was appointed to represent Gideon before the Supreme Court (on which Fortas would serve as an associate justice from 1965 to 1969). On the opposing side was Assistant Florida Attorney General Bruce R. Jacob. Arguments were heard on January 15, 1963. Fortas’s thrust was that “no man, however intelligent, can conduct his own defense adequately.” He told the justices, “I think Betts v. Brady was wrong when it was decided. I think time has made that clear. And I think time has now made it possible for the correct rule, the civilized rule, the rule of American Constitutionalism, the rule of due process, to be stated by this court.” Jacob countered that a universal requirement of counsel would put “a tremendous burden” on state bars and taxpayers, and might lead to new trials for thousands of felons. (Two-thirds of Florida prisoners had been convicted without counsel.)

On March 18, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gideon’s favor, agreeing with Fortas that Betts had been wrong all along. The main opinion — three justices filed special concurrences — was written by Justice Hugo L. Black, who had dissented in Betts. Now, two decades later, Black wrote that Betts had departed from “the sound wisdom” of a long line of cases, including Powell v. Alabama, the famous Scottsboro case, from which Black quoted: “Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law.… He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he had a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.”

With his conviction reversed, Gideon faced another Bay County jury on August 5, 1963. This time, however, he had the services of W. Fred Turner, a private lawyer paid by the state. Turner picked apart Henry Cook’s testimony, suggesting that Cook acted as the lookout for whoever actually robbed the Bay Harbor Poolroom. Like the first jury, the second deliberated only an hour—but this time the result was acquittal.

Anthony Lewis, of the New York Times, wrote a famous book chronicling the case. The title Lewis chose was Gideon’s Trumpet, an allusion to Judges IV, 34: “But the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet....”

— Jason Robin