Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution required states to provide an appointed defense lawyer to a criminal defendant facing serious charges when that defendant could not afford to hire a lawyer. The case was Gideon v. Wainwright and arose out of Panama City, Florida when Clarence Earl Gideon, a grade school dropout and drifter with a lengthy criminal record, was arrested and charged with breaking into a pool hall and stealing money. At his trial, Gideon told the judge that he could not afford a lawyer and asked the judge to appoint him an attorney to represent him. The judge, following the law at the time, advised Gideon that he could not appoint him a lawyer and denied his request.
Gideon was forced to defend himself at trial and despite his claim of being innocent, he was convicted and sentenced to the maximum term of five years in prison. The primary evidence against him was the testimony of one witness who testified that he saw Gideon leaving the pool hall with a wine bottle and money. From his jail cell, Gideon handwrote a letter appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court after the Florida Supreme Court denied his claim for relief. Gideon argued that his constitutional rights were violated by the denial of his request for an appointed attorney. Ironically, Gideon was appointed an attorney to represent him during the appeal and that lawyer was Abe Fortas, a future justice of the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court agreed with Gideon and ordered a new trial, this time with the assistance of a trial lawyer. At his second trial, Gideon’s lawyer impeached the testimony of the sole witness against Gideon. After deliberating for one hour, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.