Law and Famous Trials


What was the lasting effect of the Clarence Earl Gideon trials?

A 51-year-old drifter charged with burglary in Panama City, Florida, Clarence Earl Gideon had two trials, in 1961 and 1963. But it’s what happened between the two trials that is important to every American today. What might have been pretty standard fare in the day-to-day business of the American justice system (Gideon was charged with robbing a cigarette machine and a jukebox), the Gideon case instead made history when the defendant successfully argued that his constitutional rights had been denied when he was refused an attorney. Though he had a limited education, after a guilty verdict was handed down in his 1961 trial, Gideon knew enough about his rights to petition the Supreme Court, saying that his right to a fair trial (guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment) had been violated: Since he was not able to hire a lawyer to defend himself, the trial had not been fair. The petition, one of thousands the Supreme Court receives each year, somehow rose to the top. The high court heard Gideon’s case and agreed with his conclusion, calling it “an obvious truth,” and clearly stating that “any person hailed into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel in provided for him.” For Gideon, the opinion served to throw out the first trial; for the rest of America, it was assurance that regardless of the crime, a defendant would be guaranteed legal counsel. With the benefit of that counsel, Gideon’s case was retried in 1963. He was acquitted on all charges.


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