44 years ago: The crime that made a difference

Clarence Gideon via Wikimedia Commons

In the early morning hours of June 3, 1961, in Panama City, Florida, Clarence Earl Gideon was seen coming out of the Bay Harbor Pool Room with a bottle of wine, some cigarettes, and money stuffed in his pocket. He ran across the street to a phone booth, and a couple of minutes later a cab arrived and picked Gideon up.

A subsequent police investigation disclosed the pool room’s cigarette machine had been opened and money was missing. Hours later the police found and arrested Gideon. He was prosecuted and convicted of the breaking and entering as well as petty larceny. He was sentenced to five years in the state penitentiary.

As he sat in jail, Gideon replayed his trial. At the start, he asked the court to assign him an attorney because he could not afford one. The trial judge denied his request. Gideon was troubled by the fact that the state of Florida had had an attorney but he had not. He thought it was unfair – un-American. And so he began his legal research.

He read that the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution provided that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to … have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

Of course, it was the state of Florida, not the federal government, that had sent him to jail. But he also discovered that the Fourteenth Amendment stated, “…nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Gideon’s research showed that the Supreme Court had ruled in 1932 in Powell v. Alabama that criminal defendants had the right to the assistance of counsel – if it was a capital case. He understood that his was not a capital case, but it was darn important to him. He decided to petition the Florida Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, an order to release him. After the petition was denied, he sent a petition the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted his petition and assigned Abe Fortas (later to become an associate justice on the court) to represent him.

On March 18, 1963, nearly 44 years ago, the court ruled unanimously in Gideon’s favor. Justice Hugo L. Black wrote that the assistance of counsel was a “fundamental right,” essential to a fair trial. In a concurring opinion, Justice Tom C. Clark noted that the 14th Amendment did not restrict its rights to capital cases. The Supreme Court remanded, or returned, Gideon’s case to Florida, where he was retried. At retrial he was represented by W. Fred Turner, who hammered away at the eyewitness’s testimony. After an hour’s deliberation, the jury acquitted Gideon.

What can we learn from Gideon’s experience? First, don’t give up; be persistent. Second, under our Constitution and system of justice, one person can make a difference. So if someone ever tells you at election time that your vote won’t make a difference, remember Clarence Earl Gideon. You – one person – can make a difference for all of us.

Donald Applestein is a retired attorney and experience guide in the National Constitution Center’s Public Programs Department.