Clarence Earl Gideon

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Clarence Earl Gideon -- born in Hannibal, Missouri, on August 30, 1910; died in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on January 18, 1972; buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Hannibal, Missouri -- was a barely-literate misfit and ex-convict who was the apellant in a famous U.S. Supreme Court decision which established a major due-process right for defendants in criminal cases: the right to have the court appoint counsel to represent them if they cannot afford to hire private attorneys.


Gideon was reared in Hannibal, Missouri, but his father had died when the son was 3 years old, and after he finished the 8th grade Gideon ran away from home. By age 16 he had a police record (that would later grow to include a series of arrests, convictions, and imprisonments for various forms of theft, including four felonies): He served a year in a reformatory on a conviction for burglary. He then worked for a time in a shoe factory but was arrested at age 18 for robbery, burglary, and larceny in Missouri; he was convicted and sentenced to serve 10 years of imprisonment, but he was released in 1932 (at 21, then the "age of majority," when he became an adult instead of a minor) after serving only 3 years.

Over the next 20 years he served three more terms of imprisonment -- in Kansas (for stealing government property), in Missouri (for stealing, larceny, and escape), and in Texas (for theft) -- and married (and divorced) three times. In the 1950s he and his fourth wife (Ruth) moved to Orange, Texas, where Gideon worked sometimes as a tugboat hand or bartender until he was bedridden for three years with tuberculosis. The couple's first two children were born in Orange in 1956 and 1957, and then they moved to Panama City, on the coast of Florida's "panhandle," where their third child was born in 1959. All three children were eventually removed from the home by child-welfare authorities. In Florida, Gideon worked as an electrician and began gambling to supplement his earnings, but he was not accused of any more thefts until 1961.

As described below, Gideon was arrested and charged with the felony of breaking and entering. After the court denied his request to have a lawyer appointed to defend him at the trial, the jury convicted Gideon, and the judge sentenced him to the maximum: five years in prison. That motivated the drifter with an 8th-grade education and a prison record to take on the criminal-justice system.

After he was acquitted at his re-trial, Gideon went back to his rootless lifestyle and eventually married for a fifth time. When Gideon died, in Florida in 1972, he was still broke, and his relatives buried him in an unmarked grave in his childhood hometown in Missouri. In 1984 the local A.C.L.U. affiliate placed a tombstone on his grave.

Gideon v. Wainwright

On June 3, 1961, someone stole a few bottles of beer and soda pop and about $5 in coins (out of the jukebox and cigarette machine) from the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Bay Harbor, Florida. Henry Cook, a 22-year-old who lived near that combination pool hall and beer joint, told the police he had seen Gideon come out of it with a bottle of wine (and his pockets full of coins) and leave in a taxicab. The police found Gideon in a bar in Panama City, Florida, with $25.28 in his pockets, all in coins, which Gideon said he had won in "penny ante" card games, but he was formally charged with breaking and entering the pool room with the intent to commit larceny.

When he appeared for his trial, Gideon told Judge Robert McCrary, Jr., that he needed for the court to appoint a lawyer to defend him, but the judge said the law did not provide for that,[1] so Gideon went to trial pro se and did not do a very good job of defending himself. The jury convicted him, and on August 27, 1961, McCrary sentenced him to five years in prison.

In Raiford Prison, Gideon studied up on the law and wrote to the local office of the F.B.I., complaining he had been convicted unconstitutionally, but the F.B.I. said there was nothing it could do for him. Then Gideon tried Florida's Supreme Court, but it turned down his pro se habeas corpus petition,[2] so in January 1962 he sent the U.S. Supreme Court a 5-page handwritten (in pencil) document asking it to review the state court's decision;[3] that court docketed it as Gideon v. Cochran because H. G. Cochran was then the director of Florida's prison system.

The court also appointed Abe Fortas, a top-flight lawyer in D.C., to represent Gideon in the case. Florida's assistant attorney general Bruce R. Jacob solicited the attorneys general of other states to submit amicus curiae briefs lobbying the Supreme Court not to change the procedural rules by extending the Constitutional right to appointed counsel to defendants in non-capital cases, but that had the opposite effect -- the attorneys general of 22 states (three of which did not provide that broader protection under their own laws) weighed in on Gideon's side.[4]

The oral arguments on January 15, 1963, took a total of 185 minutes. (During his presentation, Jacob told the court Louie L. Wainwright had replaced Cochran as head of Florida's Division of Corrections, so the court changed the case's caption to "Gideon v. Wainwright.") On March 18, 1963, the court handed down its 9-to-0 decision in Gideon's favor.


Rather than spend what it would cost to retry all the prisoners in Florida who had been convicted without having lawyers appointed, the state released about 2,000 of them and dropped the charges against them (and other states did the same thing), but Gideon was not one of those -- he had to stand trial again. Two out-of-state A.C.L.U. lawyers offered to represent him, but Gideon chose an experienced local lawyer, W. Fred Turner, who spent three days investigating the charges.

At the new trial on August 5, 1963, Cook again testified that at the time of the burglary he had seen Gideon come out of the pool hall with wine and coins, use the telephone, and then wait there until a taxicab came and picked him up, but Turner countered that with the statement of the cabdriver who had driven Gideon from Bar Harbor to the bar in Panama City that Gideon was not carrying any wine, beer, or Coca-Cola®. Turner suggested, in his opening and closing statements, that Cook had himself been the "lookout" for a group of young men who broke into the poolroom to steal beer and took the coins, too, just because they were there. The jury deliberated for an hour before finding Gideon "not guilty."


The 1964 non-fiction book Gideon's Trumpet by Anthony Lewis was the basis for the 1979 made-for-television movie of the same title, which starred Henry Fonda as Gideon and José Ferrer as Fortas:


  1. Gideon said, “Your Honor, . . . I request this Court to appoint counsel to represent me in this trial.” The judge answered, “Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the court can appoint counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint counsel to defend you in this case,” and Gideon said, "The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel."
  2. Ruling reported at 135 So. 2d 746 (1961).
  3. The U.S. Supreme Court treated that as a petition for a writ of certiorari, the proper means for challenging the state court's ruling.
  4. Filing amici curiae briefs supporting Gideon's side (urging reversal of the Florida Supreme Court's ruling) were lawyers representing the A.C.L.U. and the states of Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii (U.S. state), Idaho (U.S. state), Illinois (U.S. state), Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota , Washington (U.S. state), and West Virginia. Filing briefs supporting Florida's side (urging affirmance of the state court's ruling) were lawyers representing the states of Alabama and North Carolina. (It is often said that 23 states filed briefs supporting Gideon, but that seems to be an error resulting from Oregon's joining in the brief with the others and also filing a separate amicus brief.) Two of the attorneys general who signed the joint brief later became U.S. Senators for their states: Walter F. Mondale (of Minnesota, who served as Vice-President under Jimmy Carter and later ran for President) and Thomas F. Eagleton (of Missouri, who later ran for Vice-President but resigned from the campaign).

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