Between midnight and 8:00 a.m. on June 3, 1961, a burglary occurred
at the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida. In the course of
the burglary, a window was smashed and the cigarette machine and jukebox
were broken into. A witness claimed to have seen Clarence Earl Gideon
in the poolroom early that morning. When Gideon was found nearby with a
pint of wine and some change in his pockets, the police arrested him.
They charged him with breaking and entering.
Gideon was a semi-literate drifter who could not afford a lawyer.
When he appeared at the Florida Circuit Court for trial, he asked the
judge to appoint one for him. Gideon argued that the Court should do so
because the Sixth Amendment says that everyone is entitled to a lawyer.
The judge denied his request, claiming that the state doesn't have to
provide a poor person with a lawyer unless "special circumstances"
exist. Gideon was left to represent himself. He had been arrested many
times before, so he understood some of the legal procedures. However, he
did a poor job of defending himself. For instance, his choice of
witnesses was unusual—he called the police officers who arrested him to
testify on his behalf. He lacked skill in questioning witnesses, which
made it difficult for him to present his case.
Gideon was found guilty of breaking and entering and petty larceny,
which is a felony in Florida. He was sentenced to five years in a
Florida state prison. While there, he began studying law in the prison
library. Gideon's study of the law reaffirmed his belief that the
Circuit Court's refusal to appoint counsel for him constituted a denial
of his rights. With that in mind, he filed a petition with the Supreme
Court of Florida for habeas corpus, which is an order to free him
because he had been illegally imprisoned. That petition was rejected,
but Gideon persevered. From his prison cell, he handwrote a petition
asking the Supreme Court of United States to hear his case. The Court
allowed him to file it in forma pauperis, or free of charge. After reading the petition, they agreed to hear his case.
When the Supreme Court of the United States agrees to hear a case, it
does so because the case "presents questions whose resolution will have
an immediate importance far beyond the particular facts and parties
involved" (Lewis 25). The justices were interested not simply with the
merits of Gideon's case, but with the larger issue of whether poor
people charged with noncapital offenses are entitled to a free lawyer in
state criminal trials. In a 1942 case, Betts v. Brady,
the Court had ruled that in state criminal trials, the state must supply
an indigent defendant with a lawyer only if special circumstances
exist. These special circumstances include complex charges,
incompetence, and illiteracy on the part of the defendant. Gideon did
not claim any of these special circumstances, so for the Court to rule
in his behalf, they would need to overturn Betts v. Brady. The Supreme Court of the United States asked both sides to present arguments on the issue of "Should Betts v. Brady be overturned"?
Questions to Consider
What were the charges against Gideon?
Did Gideon seem to be capable of defending himself? Could a lawyer have helped him? If so, how?
What was unique about the petition that Gideon filed with the Supreme Court of the United States?
Why did the Supreme Court of the United States agree to hear Gideon's case?
In Betts v. Brady, the Court had said that in
state courts, poor people are entitled to an attorney free of charge
only if "special circumstances" existed. Gideon did not claim any
"special circumstances." Do you think that states should be required to
provide him and others like him with a lawyer? Why or why not?