RIGHT TO AN ATTORNEY The Persistence of Clarence Earl Gideon
Though Clarence Earl Gideon is not well known today, his efforts changed the American legal system forever, and it all started with his arrest.
Clarence Earl Gideon spent most of his life living it rough. Growing up, he lived in a strict household, to the point where he was unable to enjoy the life that many of the boys his age could. When he was in the eighth grade at the age of 14, Gideon ran away from home. He became a young and very poor drifter, traveling from Missouri to California and back again. When his mother learned he was living with his uncle, she called the police and had him arrested. From here, Gideon’s already difficult life became even harder. Shortly after his arrest, Gideon broke out of jail, but it was the middle of winter, and he was desperate with nowhere to go. He broke in to a local store and stole clothes to keep himself warm, but he was quickly discovered and convicted of stealing. Although he was sentenced to three years at the Missouri State Reformatory for Boys, he was released on parole after a year. Gideon managed to find a job at a shoe factory and even got married, but when times grew hard, he fell back to crime and eventually got divorced. For the next several years, Gideon found himself in and out of prisons and several failed marriages across Missouri. Eventually, he decided to move to Florida and spent most of his time at the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City. When the pool hall was broken in to on June 3, 1961, Gideon, with a record of robbery and burglary, was accused of the break-in and arrested. The owner reported that $5 in change had been stolen in addition to a few bottles of beer and soda. When he appeared in court, Gideon was too poor to afford an attorney to represent him. He asked the presiding judge in open court to appoint him a lawyer, but the judge refused. He argued that the Sixth Amendment entitled everyone to a lawyer, but at the time, Florida law “only permitted appointment of counsel for poor defendants charged with capital offenses.” As Gideon was accused of breaking and entering and petty larceny, he did not fall into that category. Gideon did a poor job defending himself. He had little education, no legal experience, and knew very little about the law. Despite that, he did his very best. He made his own opening statement to the jury, had several arguments for his innocence, presented witnesses to defend himself, and even cross-examined the prosecution’s
witnesses. Although he did everything he could, he was still found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. But he refused to give up.
While imprisoned, Gideon began to study law and wrote a petition to the Florida Supreme Court for his release. He wrote that his constitutional rights had been violated, as the trial judge had refused to appoint him counsel, resulting in his imprisonment. Still, the Florida Supreme Court denied him. Hitting a dead end there, Gideon petitioned to the United States Supreme Court, which agreed to consider his appeal. He was given a retrial, and this time, the Supreme Court assigned him a lawyer. Gideon won and was acquitted. Gideon’s persistence and arguments for his right to an attorney have helped thousands of Americans in the years since. Many individuals who would not have had representation otherwise have been granted counsel to help plead their case, bringing the experience and knowledge that comes with studying and practicing law.
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