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  • Jerri Mitchell-Tharp

Happy Public Defense Day

One of the greatest freedoms we have is the right to appointed counsel. In Ohio, one is entitled to a court appointed attorney if they cannot afford one. However, this only applies when there is a possibility of jail time. Issues like custody, minor misdemeanor traffic offenses, and other minor charges are not included. The case that made this possible, Gideon v. Wainwright, is celebrating its 58th Anniversary today.


Clarence Earl Gideon had an eighth-grade education who ran away from home when he was in middle school. Gideon was charged with breaking and entering with the intent to commit a misdemeanor, which is a felony under Florida law. At trial, he asked the judge to appoint counsel for him because he could not afford an attorney. The trial judge denied Gideon’s request because Florida law only permitted appointment of counsel for poor defendants charged with capital offenses.


Because of the denial, Gideon represented himself. He made an opening statement to the jury, cross-examined witnesses, presented witnesses in his own defense, declined to testify himself, and made arguments trying to show his innocence. The jury found Gideon guilty and he was sentenced to five years imprisonment.


On appeal, it was argued that anyone who is charged with a criminal offense is entitled to an appointed attorney. The basis of that argument stemmed from the language of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. That language states:


Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by

an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which

district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and

cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory

process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his

defense.


The state of Florida argued that the right to appointed counsel only applied in cases involving capital in offenses, like murder.


The Supreme Court, rejecting Florida's arguments, ruled that he was entitled to an attorney.

“[L]awyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with a crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, or 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 qual before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with a crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”


“The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the in the science of law. If charged a crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel, he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he may have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.” Gideon v. Wainwright, 327 U.S. 335 (1963)

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