Living in the United States, it is all too easy to take some liberties and rights for granted and underestimate the protections afforded by our Constitution. Sometimes, it takes an event that occurs far away to bring this concept into focus. An example covered in the media is the recent despicable case of a gang-rape in India. The victim reportedly died afterward in a hospital. The case has received world-wide attention. Angry citizens of India have demanded the death penalty for the several individuals involved in the crime. Of interest, members of the local bar association refused legal representation to the defendants, given the public outcry and barbaric nature of the crime.
Gideon v. Wainwright
These events that occurred far away are relevant to the coming 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright. The legal ruling was issued in early 1963, and it set forth the requirement that state courts are constitutionally required to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford an attorney. While we do not know what the law in India says about representing defendants who have gained world-wide notoriety due to the heinous and vicious nature of their crime, the Gideon ruling has important points about constitutional rights that will be of interest to readers.
The importance of the Gideon ruling is that it is of historical interest, and relevant to appreciating the constitutional protections available to citizens. Prior to the Gideon ruling, the Supreme Court had decided several other cases relating to the right of counsel; nearly all such cases had involved the death penalty. Gideon extended the right to counsel to non-capital cases as well.
While medical malpractice litigation may be of more immediate interest to clinicians, our federal government has stepped up its efforts to identify and prosecute criminal cases in health care. The Gideon ruling is relevant to all criminal defendants, whether in the health care industry or any other field. At the very least, the facts of the case that led up to the ruling are colorful and compelling in their simplicity of principle.
The Sixth Amendment
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the part of the Bill of Rights that sets forth rights related to criminal prosecutions. The Bill of Rights contains some of the most vital and important freedoms guaranteed to U.S. citizens. The Supreme Court has applied the protections of the Sixth Amendment to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Sixth Amendment states that, “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 language of the Sixth Amendment captures important rights, such as trial, jury, notice and confrontation of adverse witnesses. The section relevant to this article is the guarantee of the assistance of a lawyer to the accused.
Facts of the case
In 1961, a break-in occurred at a bar called, Bay Harbor Pool Room, located in Panama City, Fla. The perpetrator broke the door, damaged the juke box player and the cigarette machine, and removed money from the register and juke box. One witness reported that Clarence Earl Gideon had left the poolroom around 5:30 a.m. that morning, holding a wine bottle and pockets loaded with coins, and that he entered a cab. This information was enough for the police to arrest Gideon and charge him with breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny.
Gideon could not afford a lawyer. He showed up in a Florida court and asked the court to appoint him counsel. The court refused, stating that court-appointed lawyers were reserved for capital offenses. At that time, the prevailing law was that the counsel would be appointed for indigent defendants in capital cases only; the rest of cases were evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Accordingly, at his trial, Gideon was left to defend himself without the aid of a lawyer. While Gideon maintained his innocence throughout, the jury returned a guilty verdict and sentenced him to 5 years in state prison, the maximum sentence.
B. Sonny Bal
The incarceration of Gideon
The events that followed during Gideon’s time in prison seem tailor-made for a movie. In fact, this legal case was made into a film. Henry Fonda portrayed Gideon in the 1980 made-for-television film Gideon’s Trumpet, based on Anthony Lewis’ book. Inmate Gideon began using his time and the prison library to study the American legal system. He came to believe that the trial judge had breached his constitutional right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment that was applicable to the State of Florida through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Armed with his newly acquired knowledge, Gideon wrote a letter first to the FBI office in Florida and then to the Florida Supreme Court. His pleas fell on deaf ears. Next, Gideon penned a 5-page hand-written petition to the Supreme Court of the United States, asking the nine justices to consider his complaint. The Supreme Court responded, agreeing to hear the prisoner’s case. That legal case, titled Gideon v. Cochran, was argued on Jan. 15, 1963.
Counsel Abe Fortas was assigned to represent Gideon before the U.S. Supreme Court; later this lawyer would serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice from 1965 to 1969. Fortas argued that someone like Gideon, with no training in law, was no match against a trained trial lawyer. Accordingly, there was no way to have a fair trial without legal representation. The argument from the other side was that the matter was up to Florida courts, rather than federal courts. The existing practice of assigning court counsel to represent indigent defendants on a case-by-case basis should suffice. Changing that practice could mean that thousands of convictions would have to be set aside in Florida alone.
While the case was litigated, the title of Gideon v. Cochran was changed to Gideon v. Wainwright because Louie L. Wainwright replaced H.G. Cochran as Director of the Florida Division of Corrections. On March 18, 1863, the Supreme Court handed down a 9-0 verdict in Gideon’s favor.
The decision would have a major impact. About 2,000 convicted people were freed in Florida after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Gideon got a new trial, where court-appointed counsel W. Fred Turner attacked the testimony of the eye-witness. The cab driver who had driven Gideon from the bar testified that Gideon was not carrying wine or any other drink when he took the cab. After an hour of deliberation, the jury acquitted Gideon.
Significance of Gideon
Robert F. Kennedy said this of the case, “If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court; and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look at the merits in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter; the court did look into his case; he was re-tried with the help of competent defense counsel; found not guilty and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit. And the whole course of legal history has been changed.”
Gideon reflects a landmark ruling; the case specifically overruled Betts v. Brady, a ruling that had allowed selective application of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to the states, that was itself previously binding only in federal cases. Gideon clarified that the right to the assistance of counsel was a fundamental right of the individual, essential for a fair trial. This major procedural safeguard is a profound strength of our democracy, based on the premise that no one should be charged by the state with a crime and then forced to confront the accusers in court without the protection of a lawyer.
Gideon was a high point in American jurisprudence. Later U.S. Supreme Court rulings would expand the right of defendants in criminal proceedings to counsel during trial, on appeal and during police interrogation. The tragic sexual assault case in India and the understandable reluctance of counsel in that nation to represent the defendants, reminds us of what our highest court said a half century ago: “The right of one charged with 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, 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 ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”
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B. Sonny Bal, MD, JD, MBA; and Lawrence H. Brenner, JD, are partners in the law firm of BalBrenner/Orthopedic Law Center and are the exclusive providers of loss prevention, risk management and quality improvement services for the Orthopedic Physician’s Insurance Company. Brenner can be reached at email@example.com.