The Promise of Gideon by Christopher Garcia, Chicago-Kent Adjunct Professor

"'Let the jury consider their verdict,' the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

'No, no!' said the Queen. 'Sentence first - verdict afterwards.'"

--Alice in Wonderland

March 18, marked the 60th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).  Gideon is the landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled that state courts are required under the Fourteenth Amendment to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford their own attorneys, extending the identical federal requirement under the Sixth Amendment.  A fair trial must include effective representation despite one’s class or economic station.  The constitution, under Gideon, does not contemplate a separate system of justice for the poor and the powerless. 

On January 8, 1962, a handwritten petition reached the U.S. Supreme Court from prisoner number 003826, Clarence Gideon.  When Gideon was charged with a crime in Florida, he requested a lawyer be appointed to represent him because he could not afford to hire a lawyer.  Gideon was informed that legal representation was only provided to defendants whose crimes were potentially capital.  On March 18th, 1962, in its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants have the fundamental right to be represented by a court-appointed attorney:

From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble idea cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.

Id.  The question which Florida could not sufficiently address for the Court was how someone charged in a non-capital case was somehow less entitled to a fair trial.  Gideon was granted a second trial and appointed a public defender. The jury acquitted him after deliberating for one hour.

Richard Nixon’s Attorney General once opined (utterly eviscerating the Bill of Rights) “… the thing is, you don’t have many suspects who are innocent of a crime. That’s contradictory. If a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect.''  The promise of Gideon is the presumption of innocence--suspicion is not conviction; accusation is not proof.