Just before dawn on June 3, 1961, someone broke into the Bay Harbor Poolroom in Panama City, Fla., and stole four bottles of wine, two dozen bottles of beer and soda and some change from a jukebox and cigarette machine. On a tip from a witness named Henry Cook, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested and charged with the crime.
Gideon, age 50 at the time of his arrest, was a poor, under-employed drifter, born in Hannibal, Mo. He had been married three times. Gideon had also been in and out of prison several times since his 16th birthday with both misdemeanor and felony convictions. However his last conviction and imprisonment was in 1951 in Texas.
Gideon appeared in court and informed the judge that he was not guilty of the charges and had the following dialog with Judge Robert McCrary:
Clarence Earl Gideon: Your Honor, I request this court to appoint counsel to represent me in this trial.
Judge McCrary: 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 represent you in this case.
In 1961, the controlling U.S. Supreme Court decisions were Powell v Alabama (the case of the Scottsboro Boys) (1932), which held that a defendant in a death penalty case was entitled to counsel and Betts v Brady (1942), which held a state court defendant did not have a right to an attorney absent special circumstances (i.e. mental retardation, illiterate defendant).
Gideon represented himself, was convicted of the offense and sentenced to the maximum: five years in prison. Gideon filed a writ of Habeus Corpus with the Florida Supreme Court on the grounds that he was denied counsel and due process of law. The Florida Supreme Court denied his petition.
While sitting in a Florida Penitentiary, Gideon hand wrote a five page petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Florida Supreme Court decision and his claim of the right to have an attorney. They did. Bruce Jacob, the assistant attorney general of Florida, argued the case for Florida and Abe Fortas, a renowned Washington D.C. appellate lawyer (later a Supreme Court Justice), argued the case for Gideon before the U.S. Supreme Court on January 14, 1963. The rest is history.
On March 18, 1963, 50 years ago today, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in the case of Gideon vs. Wainwright:
“In our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hailed into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, could not be assured a fair trial, unless counsel is provided for him. Lawyers in criminal courts are a necessity not a luxury. This is the obvious truth.”
Gideon’s case was reversed and remanded for a new trial with a court appointed counsel, Fred Turner of Panama City, Fla. The testimony of the “eyewitness,” Henry Cook, was challenged: other witnesses were presented for Gideon and he was acquitted. He married a fourth time, was never arrested again and died at the age of 61 on Jan. 18, 1972. He is buried in Hannibal, Mo.
About the same time as the Gideon matter, Bennie Pitt was arrested on April 9, 1961, tried and convicted in Charleston for armed robbery. He received a 15 year sentence. He did not have an attorney representing him at the trial. Pitt petitioned the S.C. Supreme Court arguing he was entitled to an attorney. In July 1962 the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the Betts decision in Pitt vs. State (1962): the defendant was not entitled to an attorney.
After the Gideon decision in March 1963, Pitt filed a writ of Habeas Corpus in federal court but the matter was sent back to South Carolina state court. With the aid of an attorney, Harold Jacob, he again petitioned the South Carolina Supreme Court on the matter of a court appointed attorney. This time the South Carolina Supreme Court followed the Gideon case. They reversed and remanded the Pitt matter for a new trial with a court appointed attorney. (Pitt v MacDougall decided November 11, 1964.)
In 1969, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, South Carolina created a public defender system. This system was comprised of independent, non profit corporations in each county that provided representation to indigent clients.
In 2007 the South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense and the legal defense community came together and put forth a plan to improve the system and bring about a statewide uniform public defender system. Under the new system, offices of public defenders (who represent 80 to 85 percent of all felony cases in South Carolina courts) are divided into 16 circuits, modeled after the state judicial system. The state prosecutors also follow the circuit system. Horry and Georgetown County comprise the Fifteenth Circuit and are run by a circuit public defender. Funding for public defender offices comes from both the state and local governments.
If you are interested in learning more about the Gideon decision, you may enjoy the book “Gideon’s Trumpet,” (1964) written by Anthony Lewis. Mr. Lewis won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the Best Fact Crime Book. There is a made for TV movie (1980) available by the same name. Henry Fonda stars in the movie as Clarence Earl Gideon and was nominated for an Emmy Award for his portrayal.
On Clarence Gideon’s headstone is etched an inscription reminding us of the victory Mr. Gideon won for all Americans:
“Each era finds an improvement in the law for the benefit of mankind.”
The writer is the Fifteenth Circuit public defender, covering Horry and Georgetown counties.