Landmark Supreme Court Ruling Came 25 Years Ago
PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) _ The defendant was charged with breaking into a poolroom to take about $65 from a vending machine and jukebox, a couple of six-packs of beer, a dozen bottles of Coca-Cola and four fifths of wine.
He made what was, in 1961, an unusual request.
″I wondered how it got into Clarence Earl Gideon’s mind ... that every time he walked in the courtroom he said: ‘Judge, I’m entitled to a lawyer,’ ″ said Bill Harris, who prosecuted the case. ″I think he was right.″
So did the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark decision handed down 25 years ago Friday in the case of Gideon vs. Wainwright.
The justices unanimously ruled that impoverished felony defendants in state courts are entitled to lawyers. That reversed a 1942 decision that held that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to assistance by counsel in criminal prosecutions did not apply to the states, though the court had ruled in 1938 that defendants in federal cases were entitled to court-appointed attorneys.
In 1961, Florida law provided for free counsel for indigents only in capital cases, so Gideon’s request was denied. He was convicted by a jury and sentenced to five years in prison.
″We were right at the time,″ said Circuit Judge Robert L. McCrary Jr., who handled the case. ″The Supreme Court changed the law on us.″
The Gideon ruling was later expanded to require legal assistance for defendants accused of lesser crimes, and led to the creation of public defender systems throughout the nation.
The case was the subject of a book by Anthony Lewis and a movie starring Henry Fonda as Gideon, both titled ″Gideon’s Trumpet.″
The Bay Harbor Poolroom where it all started in this Gulf Coast city has since been demolished. Gideon died Jan. 18, 1972, in a Fort Lauderdale hospital and was buried in his native Hannibal, Mo.
Harris, 64, the former assistant state attorney who twice prosecuted Gideon, is in private practice. McCrary, 72, who presided over both trials, remains on the bench in Marianna, about 50 miles to the north.
W. Fred Turner, 65, the defense lawyer who helped Gideon win acquittal at the new trial granted by the Supreme Court, is a circuit judge here.
Turner and Harris discussed the case in a joint interview Monday at the Bay County Courthouse where Gideon was tried. McCrary talked about it in a telephone interview last week.
All three said the criminal justice system is the better for the ruling.
″Clarence Earl Gideon was a prime example of a man not knowing what he was doing, sitting in jail, can’t investigate his case, can’t do anything,″ Harris said.
Gideon, 51 when the Supreme Court ruled, had been in and out of courtrooms and jails so he had some knowledge of the law, but he made many basic errors in defending himself.
The notion of Gideon as a lone voice crying out from his cell at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford wasn’t entirely true, Turner said.
Gideon told him he received help in preparing his hand-printed petition to the Supreme Court from a fellow inmate, Joe Peel, a former lawyer and city judge from West Palm Beach who had been convicted of murder.
Gideon was likeable, friendly and talkative, unlike the quiet loner portrayed by Fonda, Harris said.
After the justices ruled in Gideon’s favor, the American Civil Liberties Union dispatched two well-known Miami lawyers, Irwin Block and Tobias Simon, to represent him at the new trial.
″Mr. Gideon promptly spoke up and said, ‘Judge, I don’t want ’em,‴ Harris recalled.
Gideon wanted to represent himself again. McCrary was just as determined he would have an attorney and Gideon finally named Turner as a suitable choice.
Prosecutor Harris offered a plea bargain - if Gideon would plead guilty, he could be sentenced to the time he had already served. Turner advised Gideon to take the deal, which would have turned him loose, but Gideon insisted on going to trial.
The state’s key witness was Henry Cook, who testified he saw Gideon inside the poolroom about the time of the break-in.
Turner argued that Cook may have been the culprit and hammered at his credibility, something Gideon hadn’t done at the first trial.
J.D. Henderson, a nearby storekeeper, testified Cook told him he had seen someone inside, but wasn’t sure who it was.
″If everything that came out in the second trial had come out in the first trial, I’d have serious doubts myself if I would have voted him guilty,″ Harris said.
No one else was charged in the case.
Gideon had one further brush with the law. In 1965 he was arrested for vagrancy in Kentucky, where Gideon claimed he had blown all his money at the Kentucky Derby. He was released after one night in jail.