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Gideon v. Wainwright

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Significance: In this landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that counsel must be provided for indigents accused of serious crimes.


Clarence Earl Gideon had convictions for petty crimes as a young man but no criminal convictions when he was arrested for breaking into a poolroom to steal coins and beverages. He requested an attorney be appointed for him, but the judge declined because Florida state law provided court- appointed attorneys only in capital cases. Although Gideon represented himself perhaps better than the average layperson, he was convicted and sentenced as a habitual criminal to five years in prison. While in prison, he filed an in forma pauperis (pauper's) petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In Betts v. Brady (1942), the Supreme Court required that states provide counsel only if special circumstances existed, but many states had developed legislation that provided court-appointed counsel for indigents. After 1951, the Court had consistently found “special circumstances” in every case involving states that failed to provide counsel for indigents, and many believed the Betts holding was ripe to be overturned. The Court appointed a well-known Washington, D.C., lawyer, Abe Fortas, who later became a Supreme Court justice, to represent Gideon. Fortas obtained a broad overturning of the Betts ruling. The Court unanimously reversed earlier decisions, including Betts v. Brady, that allowed states to fail to provide counsel to indigents accused of serious crimes by applying the Sixth Amendment to the states through incorporation. When the case was returned to Florida, a newly appointed local attorney successfully attacked the prosecution's case and demonstrated the wisdom of the Court's requirement by showing that the most likely perpetrators of the crime were the very witnesses the prosecution had called against Gideon. Gideon laid the ground work for the far more controversial Escobedo v. Illinois (1964) and Miranda v. Arizona (1966), which involved police interrogations without the presence of legal counsel.