Gideon v. Wainwright was a 1963 landmark Supreme Court case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that, in accordance with the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, state courts are required to provide legal counsel to represent defendants who cannot afford attorneys. This was already required under federal law in accordance with the Fifth and Sixth amendments, and this case extended it to state law.
The case began when a burglary occurred on June 3, 1961 at the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida. The burglar broke a door, smashed a cigarette machine, damaged a record player, and stole money from a cash register. After a witness reported seeing Clarence Earl Gideon leave the poolroom with pockets full of cash and a bottle of wine at around 5:30 that morning, the police arrested Gideon and charged him with breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny.
After his arrest, Gideon requested a court-appointed attorney, as he could not afford one. Gideon’s request was denied, as the court stated that court-appointed attorneys could only be used in cases of capital offenses. Gideon went through his trial, acting as his own defense. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in state prison.
From his prison cell, Gideon wrote an appeal to the United States Supreme Court in a suit against the Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, who was H G Cochran. However Cochran retired, and was replaced by Louie L Wainwright before the Supreme Court heard the case. Gideon argued that he had been denied his Sixth Amendment rights, and that the state of Florida had failed to accord with the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor with Gideon. The case drastically impacted the justice system in the United States. As a result of the ruling, 2,000 convicted individuals were freed in Florida alone. Gideon was not one of these individuals. Gideon was awarded a retrial, which took place five months after the Supreme Court decision. Gideon was acquitted of the crimes and returned to his life of freedom.
Today, all 50 states are required to offer a public defender in any case. Some states and counties, like Washington, D.C. have additional training processes that attorneys must undergo in order to become a public defender.
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