Gideon v. Wainwright

The Right to Counsel in Criminal Cases

Clarence Earl Gideon
 Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Gideon v. Wainwright was argued on January 15, 1963 and decided on March 18, 1963.

Facts of Gideon v. Wainwright

Clarence Earl Gideon was accused of stealing from the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida on June 3, 1961. When he asked for a court appointed counsel, he was denied this because according to Florida law, court appointed counsel was only provided in the case of a capital offense. He represented himself, was found guilty, and was sent to prison for five years.

Fast Facts: Gideon v. Wainwright

  • Case Argued: Jan. 15, 1963
  • Decision Issued: March 18, 1963
  • Petitioner: Clarence Earl Gideon
  • Respondent: Louie L. Wainwright, Director, Division of Corrections
  • Key Question: Does the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel in criminal cases extend to felony defendants in state courts?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Black, Warren, Brennan, Stewart, White, Goldberg, Clark, Harlan, Douglas
  • Dissenting: None
  • Ruling: The Supreme Court ruled that under the Sixth Amendment, states must provide an attorney to any defendants in criminal cases who are unable to afford their own attorneys.

While in prison, Gideon studied in the library and prepared a handwritten Writ of Certiorari that he sent to the United States Supreme Court claiming that he had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to an attorney:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense. (Italics Added)

The Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren agreed to hear the case. They assigned Gideon a future Supreme Court justice, Abe Fortas, to be his attorney. Fortas was a prominent Washington DC attorney. He successfully argued Gideon's case, and the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gideon's favor. It sent his case back to Florida to be retried with benefit of a public attorney.

Five months after the Supreme Court ruling, Gideon was retried. During the retrial, his attorney, W. Fred Turner, was able to show that the chief witness against Gideon was possibly one of the lookouts for the burglary itself. After only one hour's deliberation, the jury found Gideon not guilty. This historic ruling was immortalized in 1980 when Henry Fonda took on the role of Clarence Earl Gideon in the movie "Gideon's Trumpet." Abe Fortas was portrayed by José Ferrer and Chief Justice Earl Warren was played by John Houseman.

Significance of Gideon v. Wainwright

Gideon v. Wainwright overruled the previous decision of Betts v. Brady (1942). In this case, Smith Betts, a farm worker in Maryland had asked for counsel to represent him for a robbery case. Just as with Gideon, this right was denied him because the state of Maryland would not provide attorneys except in capital case. The Supreme Court decided by a 6-3 decision that a right to an appointed counsel was not required in all cases in order for an individual to receive a fair trial and due process in state trials. It was basically left up to each state to decide when it would provide public counsel.

Justice Hugo Black dissented and wrote the opinion that if you were indigent you had an increased chance of conviction. In Gideon, the court stated that the right to an attorney was a fundamental right ​for a fair trial. They stated that due to the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, all states would be required to provide counsel in criminal cases. This significant case created the need for additional public defenders. Programs were developed in states around the country to help recruit and train public defenders. Today, the number of cases defended by public defenders is huge. For example, in 2011 in Miami Dade County, the largest of the 20 Florida Circuit Courts, approximately 100,000 cases were assigned to Public Defenders.

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Kelly, Martin. "Gideon v. Wainwright." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Kelly, Martin. (2020, August 27). Gideon v. Wainwright. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Gideon v. Wainwright." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 10, 2022).