The promise of Gideon v. Wainwright

By Tracie Olson

Born in 1910, Clarence Earl Gideon was a homeless drifter who spent most of his life in and out of trouble. In 1961, a pool room in Florida was burglarized. A single eyewitness testified that he saw the burglar leave the pool room carrying a wine bottle and money, and further testified that the man he saw was Gideon. No other evidence tied Gideon to the crime.

In court, Gideon proclaimed his innocence and asked the judge to appoint him counsel, as he could not afford to hire his own. The judge denied his request, telling Gideon that the law only allowed the court to appoint counsel to those facing a capital offense. Ultimately, the jury convicted Gideon and he was sentenced to five years in state prison.

Undeterred, Gideon petitioned the Florida Supreme Court and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that his conviction be reversed because he had been unconstitutionally denied the right to be represented by counsel at trial. On March 18, 1963, the high court agreed, issuing its landmark decision in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright.

In its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state courts are required to provide legal counsel to defendants who are unable to afford their own attorneys. The court held that a fundamental and essential prerequisite to a fair criminal justice system is the right to be defended by competent and effective lawyers.

It stated, “… reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.”

At his retrial, Gideon was represented by defense counsel. He was acquitted in less than an hour by a jury of his peers. After his release, he reportedly stayed out of trouble.

Since Gideon v. Wainwright was decided, the promise of equal access to effective assistance of counsel is alive and well in Yolo County. While other parts of the country, traditionally the Southern states and now more Northeastern jurisdictions, admittedly have extreme challenges that affect their ability to provide competent legal representation to defendants, California has largely managed to steer clear of the worst of these problems.

You will rarely hear a public defender’s office say that it has all the money it needs, and most are not funded on par with the same county’s district attorney’s office. However, as the chief public defender of Yolo County, I am extremely proud of the legal representation my office provides to indigent defendants, and I am proud of the role we play in the criminal justice system.

We are not only full and active partners in implementing system changes necessitated by criminal justice realignment, but we collaborate with partners to optimize outcomes and to minimize collateral consequences for our clients.

First and foremost however, we are litigators, whose role it is to insist that law enforcement operate within the scope of their authority and that evidence is tested to the fullest extent of the law.

Every public defender has been asked at least once, in some fashion or another, “How do you sleep at night doing what you do?” This question is typically asked by the person who can’t fathom actually needing a public defender for himself, a family member or a friend. However, when something goes wrong in one of their lives, we are the first ones they call — and it’s only then that they truly understand.

Happy 50th anniversary, Mr. Gideon, and thank you for not giving up.

— Tracie Olson is Yolo County’s public defender.

Special to The Enterprise

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