The Story of
Over fifty-five years ago, a poor man named Clarence Earl Gideon sat in a Florida prison cell doing five years for a pool hall burglary in which about five dollars, several beers, and a few bottles of soda were stolen.
Gideon v. Wainwright
How did this happen?
Mr. Gideon refused to accept his fate without a fight. He began reading law books at the prison library.
He learned that the supreme law of the land, the United States Constitution, seemed to give everyone the right to a lawyer. But somehow, the US Supreme Court had never applied this right to the thousands of people facing charges in the state courts of Florida and other states each year.
To Mr. Gideon, this hardly seemed fair. People could be locked up for years and it didn't make sense that some should have a lawyer while others did not.
So Mr. Gideon took out a pencil and decided to do something about it.
He wrote a plea to the US Supreme Court.
Mr. Gideon's case was a long-shot. Against all odds, the Supreme Court picked his letter from the thousands it receives every year and decided to hear his case.
Several months later, on March 18, 1963, the US Supreme Court gave its final decision. They agreed with Mr. Gideon. His trial had been unfair because he had been denied the right to a lawyer.
From that point on, all people, rich and poor alike, have been entitled to a lawyer when facing serious criminal charges in the United States.
Mr. Gideon's ordeal was not over.
Even though he had won in the US Supreme Court, Mr. Gideon's problems were not over. He would have to face trial again. But this time he would have a lawyer, Fred Turner.
At his new trial, Mr. Gideon's lawyer was able to show that the state's key witness was lying, and might have even been part of the burglary himself.
He was also able to show that some of the evidence that had made Mr. Gideon look guilty in the original trial had a perfectly innocent explanation. And he was able to make sure that Mr. Gideon had a fair chance to tell his side of the story.
This time, the jury would find Mr. Gideon not guilty.
After more than two years in prison, Mr. Gideon was a free man, and the right to a lawyer was finally the law of the land.