Your right to an Attorney- Clarence Gideon and the US Supreme Court

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You’re going to get a history lesson today.  I’m a history teacher, so that’s allowed.

Today’s lesson is on Clarence Gideon; an unlikely an American hero as there ever was.

Gideon was a poor small time crook.  He did several stretches in prison for petty crimes and robberies- usually thefts that kept him fed during the Depression.

Well one fine day in 1961 he was arrested for burglarizing a local pool hall.  He didn’t do it.

Next he finds himself in front of a judge and he tells him he’s broke and can’t afford an attorney.  The Judge tells him that in Florida he can only be appointed one if it’s a capital case, which his isn’t.  Gideon represented himself as best he could, was found guilty, and sent away to start a five-year sentence.

Clarence is barely educated, but he starts to read in the prison library.  The document he reads more than any other is the U.S. Constitution.  There, in what seemed to him to be clear terms, was listed his right to have an attorney at trial.  A right he was denied.

What he did next cements his place in American history.  Gideon sat down and wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme court, in pencil, and on prison stationery.  The letter was a legal one, asking the court to grant a writ of habeas corpus to free him because he was denied the right to an attorney.  The wonderful thing is, the court read it and agreed to hear his case.

In a resounding vote of 9-0, they affirmed what Gideon already knew.  He had the right to an attorney, and so did everyone else.

He was retried and quickly acquitted.  Many poor prisoners who had been run roughshod through the legal system were freed or granted new trials of their own.  Today 16% of people charged with a crime are found not guilty, a number that would likely be much lower if they did not have access to a lawyer.

The worst thing a free society can do is deny freedom to the innocent.  And Gideon’s letter brought us closer to that ideal.

You have the right to remain silent.

Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law.

You have the right to an attorney.  If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.

Thanks Clarence.



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