Gideon, Clarence Earl (1910–1972)

Born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1910, Clarence Earl Gideon secured the right to counsel for indigent criminal defendants charged with felonies in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). Gideon experienced extreme poverty throughout his lifetime. He ran away from home in the eighth grade and was first arrested for a petty crime as a juvenile. He spent one year in reform school. At eighteen, he was arrested, charged with burglary, robbery, and larceny, and sentenced to ten years. For the next thirty years, Gideon served several more prison terms in Kansas, Missouri, and Texas and worked as an itinerant laborer when he was free. Just before the arrest that led to his historic appeal, he lost three children to the Florida welfare authorities.

In June 1961, a pool hall in Panama City, Florida, where Gideon was a frequent customer, was burglarized. Some beer and wine and $65.00 in change were stolen. An eyewitness told police that he had seen Gideon, his pockets full of change, exit the pool hall carrying a bottle of wine. The eyewitness said he saw Gideon make a phone call, then get into a cab and leave. The police arrested Gideon at a nearby tavern with his pockets full of coins.

Because he was too poor to hire an attorney, Gideon asked the trial judge to appoint an attorney for him. The judge denied Gideon’s request because Florida law, unlike that in forty-five other states and the federal courts at the time, authorized courtappointed counsel only for indigent defendants charged with capital crimes. Gideon represented himself, was convicted, and sentenced to serve five years.

While he was incarcerated, Gideon began reading the law and decided to pursue an appeal based on his belief that the denial of counsel violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. He wrote to the Florida Supreme Court and the FBI, but neither gave Gideon any relief. He then wrote a five-page petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court granted cert and appointed Abe Fortas to represent Gideon on appeal. The Warren Court reversed, holding that all defendants charged with felonies were entitled to counsel, and ordered a new trial for Gideon. As a result of his appeal, Florida released over two thousand convicted felons who had been tried without the assistance of counsel.

W. Fred Turner represented Gideon at the new trial, and the jury acquitted Gideon after one hour of deliberation. Turner located the cab driver and called him as a witness at the new trial. He testified that, when Gideon got into his cab, he did not see Gideon carrying any bottles. Moreover, Turner impugned the credibility of the eyewitness by suggesting that he had been a lookout for the real thieves.

Upon his acquittal Gideon returned to a life of poverty and died in 1972. He was buried in an unmarked grave, though a granite headstone was later added. Gideon has become a patron saint of criminal defense attorneys, especially public defenders, with numerous celebrations honoring his appeal and awards in his name.

J. AMY DILLARD

References and Further Reading

  • Lewis, Anthony. Gideon’s Trumpet. New York: Random House, 1964.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1962)

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