It was 1961 when Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for breaking into the vending machines of a Panama City, Fla., pool hall. Two years later, the case of the north Florida drifter had landed in front of the Supreme Court — and had left its mark on the U.S. Constitution.
After his arrest, Gideon was charged with a felony and denied a lawyer when he petitioned the court for one. (He wasn't able to afford legal fees.) The judge in his case said he would only be appointed an attorney from the state if a guilty verdict could lead to a death sentence.
While he would not face the death penalty under Florida law, Gideon did lose his case. He was sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed his imprisonment to Florida's highest court, which denied it, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard his case in 1963.
In its unanimous Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, which turns 50 this year, the Supreme Court decided that Americans accused of a serious crime have the constitutional right to legal representation, whether they can afford it or not.
To mark the half-century, HBO will air the documentary "Gideon's Army," which follows three public defenders as they navigate their work.
As the film shows, the anniversary is one of reflection. Attorney General Eric Holder noted in a recent speech marking the anniversary that the right to counsel is in a "state of crisis":
In short, America's indigent defense systems exist in a state of crisis. Like many of you, this is something I've seen firsthand. As a judge on the District of Columbia Superior Court — and, later, as United States Attorney for the District of Columbia — I frequently witnessed the devastating consequences of inadequate representation.
I saw that wrongful convictions and unjust sentences carry a moral cost that's impossible to measure — and undermine the strength, integrity, and public trust in our legal system. I also recognize that, in purely economic terms, they drain precious taxpayer resources — and constitute an outrageous waste of court funds on new filings, retrials, and appeals just because the system failed to get it right the first time.
"Gideon's Army" producer/director Dawn Porter joins The Daily Circuit to talk about the film, her work and the state of public defenders in America's justice system today. She's been encouraging communities to host screenings of the documentary and pull back the curtain on the work of the lawyers given the task of defending the public. She'll be joined by Kelley Malone O'Neill, managing attorney in Ramsey County's public defender's office.
LEARN MORE ABOUT PUBLIC DEFENDERS:
AUDIO: Gideon v. Wainwright oral arguments | PART I (via the Oyez Project at the Chicago-Kent College of Law)
AUDIO: Oral arguments | PART II
• Foot soldiers in the battle for a fair shake
Movie review: "Today the disparity between the haves and have-nots is such that most of the 12 million people arrested in the United States each year will be represented by one of the country's 15,000 public defenders." (The New York Times)
• Sequester cuts hit home for Minnesotans
"Katherian Roe, chief federal public defender in Minnesota, said she has yanked attorneys off high-profile ¬trials to prevent a backlog of lower-level cases. To keep her attorneys paid, she has cut back on paid expert witnesses and let vacant positions go unfilled. Even so, the caseloads for Roe's lawyers are growing. Attorneys from Roe's office represent more than 80 percent of federal defendants." (Star Tribune)
• The Right to Counsel: Badly Battered at 50
Opinion: "While the constitutional commitment is generally met in federal courts, it is a different story in state courts, which handle about 95 percent of America's criminal cases. This matters because, by well-informed estimates, at least 80 percent of state criminal defendants cannot afford to pay for lawyers and have to depend on court-appointed counsel." (Lincoln Caplan in The New York Times)
• Happy anniversary, Clarence Gideon
"Every day in thousands of courtrooms across the nation, from trial courts that handle felony cases to limited jurisdiction justice of the peace courts, the right to counsel is violated. Judges conduct hearings in which people accused of crimes and children accused of delinquency appear without lawyers. Some are middle class and therefore not eligible for appointed lawyers. Many plead guilty without lawyers. Others plead guilty and are sentenced after learning about plea offers from lawyers they met moments before. They are afraid and intimidated by the courts. Innocent people plead guilty to get out of jail. Too many plead guilty with no idea that there are collateral consequences that could change their lives." (Judge Kevin S. Burke in MinnPost)