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Gideon Vs. Wainwright

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Right to Legal Counsel

The framers formed this country with one sole document, the

Constitution, which they wrote with great wisdom and foresight. This

bountiful wisdom arose from the unjust treatment of King George to

which the colonists were subject. Among these violations of the

colonists' rights were inequitable trials that made a mockery of

justice. As a result, a fair trial of the accused was a right given to

the citizens along with other equities that the framers instilled in

every other facet of this country's government. These assurances of

the citizens' rights stated in the bill of rights.

In the Sixth Amendment, it is stated that, "In all criminal

prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right...to have the

Assistance of Counsel for his defence." A first reading of this phrase

one might be think that this right, that which gives a person accused

of a crime to have lawyers for his defense, is common knowledge being

that it is among the most basic rights given to the citizenry of the

public. However, the simple manner in which this amendment is phrased

creates a "gray area", and subject to interpretation under different

circumstances. The legitimacy of the right to mount a legal defense is

further obscured by the Fourteenth Amendment which states, "No State

shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or

immunities of citizens of the United States." As a result, many

questions begin to arise which seek to determine the true right of the

accused to the assistance of counsel. Should legal counsel be provided

by the government if the accused lacks the funds to assemble a counsel

for his defense? Or, on the other hand, does this amendment set the

responsibility of assembling a defensive counsel on the accused even

if he or she lacks the funds to do so?

Also, do the states have the right to make their own

legislation regarding the right of the indigent accused to have

counsel appointed to them in the state trials, or does the Fourteenth

Amendment prevent this? The Supreme Court was faced with answering

these questions in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright.

In June of 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon, a fifty year old petty

thief, drifter, and gambler who had spent much of his life in and out

of jail was arrested in Panama City Florida. He was charged with

breaking into a poolroom one night in an effort to steal beer, Coke,

and coins from a cigarette machine (Goodman 62).

From the outset, Gideon insisted that he was innocent. His

trial commenced in a Florida courtroom in August of that year. Gideon

informed the Judge that he was not prepared for the trial to begin

because he had not assembled a legal counsel in his defense. He then

requested that the court appoint counsel to represent him (Goodman

62). The Judge responded with the following statement:

"Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you

in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time

the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a defendant is when that

person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have

to deny your request to appoint Counsel to defend you in this case"

(372 U.S. 335)

The trial continued, and Gideon directed his defense; but his efforts

were futile as one could expect from a common man with no legal

education or experience. The jury convicted him of the felonious

charges and gave Gideon the maximum five year sentence (Goodman 62).

At the time of Gideon's trial in the Florida court the right to legal

counsel ensured by the Sixth Amendment was only applicable to federal

cases, and states had the right to handle the matter of the

appointment of legal counsel to the defense in state cases at their

discretion (Asch, 135). This practice was an effect of the outcome of

the United States Supreme Court case of Betts v. Brady decided in

1942. In this case, an unemployed farm worker in Maryland named Smith

Betts was charged with robbery requested that the court appoint

counsel to his defense. The judge denied this request on the grounds

that in that county it was not practice in that county for the court

to appoint counsel to poor defendants only in capital cases. Like

Gideon, Betts conducted his own defense and was convicted and

sentenced to eight years in prison. Betts sent an appeal to the

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