In CASE You Didn’t Know…

Before Hurricane Michael, Panama City was probably best known as a site of spring break revelry. But Panama City is also the location of an incident that led to a landmark Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright. The average citizen won’t recognize the name of the case, but he will recognize what resulted from the case.

If you have ever seen a TV show or movie which involves someone being arrested for a crime, you are familiar with some often used words called the Miranda warning. These words go something like: ‘You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” Well, before the Gideon case, you were up the creek without a paddle in Florida if you couldn’t afford an attorney in a noncapital (think the death penalty) case. Thanks to Mr. Gideon, should you decide to steal from a convenience store and are indigent, you can have a lawyer appointed to represent you.

Since a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case resulted, you probably think that there was something special about the circumstances of Mr. Gideon’s case. And you’d be wrong. It was an ordinary crime like numerous others committed every day. Even though the scene of the crime was Panama City, the incident did not take place on the beach or during spring break, and the suspect was nowhere close to being college age. The crime took place at a beer bar and pool room, the Bay Harbor Pool Room sometime between midnight and 8:00 a.m. on June 3, 1961. A window was broken and the jukebox and cigarette machine were smashed; $5 in change was stolen, along with a few bottles of beer and soda, and $50 from the jukebox. The suspect who was fingered? Clarence Earl Gideon, a poor drifter in his fifties with an 8th grade education and a criminal history.

Following his arrest, Gideon was charged with B & E (breaking and entering) and petty larceny. He appeared in Bay County Circuit Court to face the charges alone because he was too poor to afford an attorney. (Even if he had been guilty, the $55 from the heist would not have covered the retainer for a competent attorney….) Mr. Gideon expressly requested the appointment of an attorney, but the trial judge denied that request since Florida law only allowed appointment of counsel for indigent defendants in capital cases. Mr. Gideon was left to represent himself and do the best he could; this, of course, meant that he was convicted and sentenced to five years.

Gideon may have been poor and uneducated, but he was no dummy. He used his time in Florida State Prison to learn the law. (Yes, there are law books in prison libraries, and, unsurprisingly, those are the most popular books around.) Utilizing prison stationery and a pencil, Gideon hand wrote an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The named defendant, Wainwright, was the Secretary of Florida’s Department of Corrections. Gideon argued that the trial court’s denying him counsel violated his Sixth Amendment rights.

And what was one of the first things the U.S. Supreme Court did after accepting Gideon’s case? Why, they appointed him an attorney to represent him before the high court. This attorney was not some lowly, cheap attorney. Oh, no!  Assigned to advocate for Gideon was prominent Washington, D.C. attorney Abe Fortas, who later became a Supreme Court Justice himself.

Fortas made a compelling case for Gideon during oral argument. He pointed out that the first thing that an attorney does when facing criminal charges is to retain an attorney. The attorney does not attempt to advocate for himself. Fortas noted that famed criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow immediately retained an attorney when he was  charged with jury tampering and suborning perjury (in lay language trying to get someone to lie under oath). If the most widely respected criminal attorney in the U.S. needed a lawyer when a criminal defendant, then wouldn’t a man with absolutely no legal training need one even more?

The Supremes (the black-robed justices and not the black singers) were swayed by Fortas’ argument. They were so swayed that the decision of the high court announced March 18, 1063 (prime spring break time) was unanimous (9-0) in favor of Gideon. Would that we had such unanimity on key issues in D.C. today….but I digress.

Did this legal victory result in freedom for Gideon? Well, not immediately. His conviction was set aside, and a new trial was ordered. Gideon got another day in Bay County Circuit Court a few months after the Supreme Court decision was announced. This time he had an appointed lawyer at government expense. His defense attorney picked apart and discredited the prosecution witnesses’ testimony during trial, and Gideon was handily acquitted by the jury after a mere hour of deliberations.

The result of the Gideon opinion touched far more than just Mr. Gideon and the Bay County, Florida area. Approximately 2,000 individuals were released from custody in Florida alone in Gideon’s aftermath. The decision created a need for public defenders (commonly referred to as PD’s) for indigent representation. Post-Gideon  the State of Florida required public defenders in all of the state’s circuit courts.

Gideon is a case that should give everyone pause. Out of ordinary circumstances and from an unlikely hero came a huge change in how our judicial system is run. A man with an 8th grade education, a pencil, and some determination met a difficult situation head on and made legal history. OK, having a great lawyer like Abe Fortas before the Supremes didn’t hurt, but the circumstances of Gideon’s case cried out for an injustice to be righted. Despite the odds, Gideon tilted at a windmill and won.

So, next time you watch a crime drama and hear the Miranda warnings being given, think of Clarence Gideon. He was given legal lemons (an unfair conviction) but made legal lemonade (the Gideon decision guaranteeing indigents representation) that benefits defendants still today, almost 60 years later. Consider how ordinary events. people, and places can provide the opportunity for big changes to be made in the world around us. And heavens, please remember that Panama City is not just about spring break; it is a place that gave rise to new legal ground being broken.

Just WONDER-ing: Have you ever heard of the Gideon decision? How would you feel if you were forced to defend yourself against criminal charges without benefit of counsel? Can a defendant get a fair trial without an attorney?





4 thoughts on “In CASE You Didn’t Know…

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read this piece, Marilyn. Glad you enjoyed and learned from it. History was made just down the road from us. There is (or at least was before Hurricane Michael) a marker outside the Bay County Courthouse indicating it was the site of the Gideon trial. Wish I had taken a picture of it years ago when I did work over there.


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