Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the justices unanimously affirmed a constitutional right to a lawyer for criminal defendants who could not afford one.
Much has been written about the case, which overruled an earlier decision and forced states to create taxpayer-funded public defender offices. Movies and documentaries have also been made.
Clarence Gideon was charged with breaking into a Panama City, Florida, pool hall on June 3, 1961.
The place was vandalized, and money was stolen from a cash register. A witness later claimed he had seen Gideon leaving the business at 5:30 a.m. with a wine bottle and money in his pocket.
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Based on that account, he was charged with petty larceny and breaking and entering. He was denied a court-appointed lawyer in state court, represented himself, and was convicted.
Here are some of the key moments of the case in the words of those involved:
An appeal to the Florida Supreme Court was denied, so he launched another.
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In the decades since this remarkable case – and Gideon’s retrial, at which he was found not guilty – public defender systems have been established in the states and strengthened over the decades. Additional court actions have expanded the right to counsel in juvenile and certain misdemeanor cases.