Synopsis: "Gideon's Trumpet"

by Jessica Briggs
Gideon v. Wainright granted all criminal defendants free access to a court-appointed attorney.

Gideon v. Wainright granted all criminal defendants free access to a court-appointed attorney.

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"Gideon's Trumpet" by Anthony Lewis is a book that tells the story of Clarence Earl Gideon, plaintiff in the case Gideon v. Wainright that was unanimously decided by the Supreme Court in 1963. This landmark case found that all states were required under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution to provide legal counsel in criminal cases for defendants who could not afford one. The book was first published in 1964, and a movie based on the book was released in 1980.

Panama City, 1961

The book opens with an account of Gideon being arrested in Panama City, Fla. in 1961 for breaking and entering the Bay Harbor Pool Room. Someone had broken in, smashed the jukebox and cigarette machine and stolen money from the cash register, and a witness came forward and claimed to the police that they had seen Gideon leaving the pool hall at 5:30 that morning with wads of cash in his pockets. Gideon was then arrested and charged on the basis that accusation with breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny.

Gideon's Trial

On the day of his trial, Clarence Earl Gideon stood before the judge alone, with no attorney by his side; he could not afford to hire one. When the judge asked him if he was ready to proceed, he answered that he was not. When the judge asked him why he was not ready, he responded that he had no counsel, and asked the court to appoint him one. The judge told Gideon that Florida only provided counsel to those defendants accused of capital murder, and as Gideon was not accused of such a crime, he was not entitled to an attorney. The trial ensued with Gideon acting pro se as his own attorney. Though he emphatically declared his innocence, he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in Florida State Prison.

Gideon's Incarceration

Gideon did not idly bide his time in jail. He studied hard in the prison library, working hard to understand the law in order to stand a chance in his appeal to the Supreme Court against the secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, Louie L. Wainwright. His argument was that he had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to counsel, and thus his conviction should be overturned. The Supreme Court granted him a Writ of Certiorari, and appointed him a D.C. lawyer named Abe Fortas, a friend of President Lyndon B. Johnson and several Supreme Court justices.

Supreme Court and Retrial Outcome

The court examined Gideon's case and Fortas' team's brief, and decided that the intent of the Sixth Amendment had been to provide counsel to all criminal defendants, not just capital murder ones. This overturned Gideon's conviction and he was retried, this time with counsel by his side. He was acquitted.

About the Author

Jessica Briggs began writing professionally in 2011. She has written for high school, college and law school newspapers such as "The Justice" and "The Hoot" at Brandeis University. Briggs holds a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a joint Juris Doctor and Master of Laws in international criminal law and justice.

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