Gideon and the Law

Justice & The Law

Each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.  —Clarence Gideon

The Book of Judges in the Old Testament tells the story of Gideon, who was chosen by God to free the people of Israel—some 1,200 years before the birth of Christ. With an army of 300, Gideon intimidates and defeats thousands of Midianite troops in a bold nighttime attack, simply by the blaring of trumpets and the display of torches. Not one of his soldiers was lost. Considered the greatest of the Israelite judges, Gideon is memorialized by The Gideons International, an organization which, among other good works, supplies the King James Version of the Bible in hotel rooms across the country. Another Gideon, a far more unlikely hero than the first with that name, is responsible—in his own way—for changes of biblical proportions in the criminal justice system in the United States.

His story begins after midnight on June 3, 1961, when a burglary took place at the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida. Someone broke into the doorway, smashed a cigarette machine, and stole the contents of the cash register. Police learned that a witness by the name of Henry Cook had seen Clarence Earl Gideon at 5:30 that morning leaving the pool room with a wine bottle, beer, a coke, and pocket change. Based on this information, Gideon, a drifter with a long history of petty crimes, was arrested and charged with a felony. 

This Gideon had a background that was not helpful to his claim of innocence. Born on August 30, 1910, in Hannibal, Missouri, he was three when his father died. Unable to conform to the strict household rules of his mother and resented by his stepfather, he ran away from home at 14 and traveled to California and back in the following year. When his mother learned that he was living with an uncle, she had him arrested. Young Gideon escaped from jail, stole some clothes, and was sentenced to three years in reform school. In 1928, during his first marriage, he worked in a factory but soon lost his job. A series of crimes led to a ten-year sentence in the Missouri state prison and divorce. Paroled after three years, he found no work during the Great Depression. In and out of prison in several states over the ensuing years, Gideon also experienced a series of failed marriages. He eventually settled in Panama City and, just short of his 50th birthday, was spending much of his time at the Harbor Pool Room.

When arraigned after his arrest, Gideon informed the judge that he could not afford to hire an attorney. The judge explained that the law allowed the appointment of an attorney only in capital cases involving a possible penalty of death. Gideon tried to represent himself, performed pitifully, and was found guilty in short order. Sentenced to five years in prison, he appealed to the Florida Supreme Court and lost. His last hope, still without counsel but with the assistance of the library at his prison, he filed “in forma pauperis” a petition to our nation’s highest court. Gideon claimed that he was entitled to, but denied, the appointment of counsel at his trial as guaranteed by the United States Constitution. 

The court agreed to hear the case and appointed Abe Fortas, a well-known Memphis attorney who was later appointed to a seat on the high court himself, to argue the issue on behalf of Gideon. On March 18, 1963, just over 60 years ago, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous vote, ruled that the appointment of counsel was a fundamental right to any defendant who asked for but could not pay for the services of an attorney. Few, if any, cases have had a more profound effect on the legal profession. 

Gideon and some 2,000 other inmates in Florida alone were entitled to release and a new trial as a result of the decision. Five months later, Gideon was tried for a second time. W. Fred Turner served as his appointed counsel. Again, Cook was called upon as the key witness in the trial. Turner’s effective cross-examination discredited Cook, a man of questionable character, and became a key factor in the proceedings. Moreover, a cab driver who had driven Gideon from the pool hall that night to a nearby bar, confirmed that Gideon had no wine, beer, or soft drink bottles, items taken in the burglary, when he entered his car. In his closing argument, Turner suggested that Cook had been a lookout for the real perpetrators. The jurors deliberated for only an hour before returning a not guilty verdict. 

After five years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Gideon was released. He married yet again and moved to Fort Lauderdale where he died of cancer on January 18, 1972. He was 61. For a time, his grave site was unmarked. A granite headstone was added later with a line from a letter Gideon had written to Abe Fortas just before the release of the landmark decision: “Each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.”

Post Gideon v. Wainwright, the federal courts were flooded with petitions for release by unrepresented inmates seeking new trials. In this state, our General Assembly passed into law the Post-Conviction Procedure Act of 1967 and, in order to relieve our state supreme court from an insurmountable number of claims, like those of Clarence Gideon, created the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. Finally, by 1990, an elected Public Defender held an office in each of the state’s judicial districts. Today, the phrase “you have a right to an attorney; if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you,” has become an integral part of the criminal justice system. Television has done wonders for spreading the word.

To end this column on a biblical note just as in the beginning, the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament offers sage advice: “Open thy mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and defend the right of the poor and needy.” This has been the duty to those in the legal profession, like yours truly, who can often be hard to love… sort of like a porcupine in need of a hug.   

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