When Clarence Earl Gideon was tried for breaking and entering, he
told the judge he was too poor to afford a lawyer and asked the judge to
appoint one for him. The judge denied Gideon's request, saying that
Gideon's case was not a capital offense. (A capital offense is one that
holds the possibility of a death sentence.) The judge cited Betts v. Brady in explaining that in non-capital cases, the accused is entitled to a
lawyer only if "special circumstances" exist. Examples of "special
circumstances" include complex charges and illiteracy or incompetence on
the part of the accused. Gideon did not fit into any of these
categories, so he represented himself at trial.
Your teacher will play a clip from the movie, Gideon's Trumpet. As you watch the clip, take notes on how Gideon defends himself.
- Note to Teacher: Play the entire courtroom
scene from beginning to end. This clip starts with the text "August 4,
1961" at approximately 6:24 into the movie and runs for approximately 13
minutes, until 19:28, when Gideon's lawyer leaves the courtroom.
Questions for Class Discussion
- How well did Gideon defend himself?
- What could a lawyer have done differently? Would that have changed the outcome of the case?
- Can the average person, who like Gideon, is not illiterate or
incompetent, do an adequate job of defending himself or herself at
trial? Why or why not?
Your teacher will now play another clip from the same movie. As you
watch the clip, take note of the differences between this trial and the
- Note to Teacher: Play the final courtroom scene,
which begins with Gideon and his lawyer walking up the steps to the
courtroom. It starts at approximately 1:23:00 into the movie and runs
for approximately 18 minutes, until 1:41:23, when Gideon leaves the
Questions to Consider
- What did Gideon's lawyer do that was different from what Gideon had
done? How did his knowledge of courtroom procedure, his investigative
tactics, and his ability to question witnesses affect the outcome of the
- In the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court
of the United States determined that even in noncapital criminal cases,
the accused is entitled to a lawyer. Based on the clip you have seen
and what you already know, do you think this was an appropriate