50th anniversary of right to a fair trial

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by Michael Lifsey, special to the News & Reporter

“In our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, could not be assured a fair trial, unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.” Justice Hugo Black, March 18, 1963, in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Gideon vs. Wainwright.
This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gideon case. This decision set in motion the greatest transformation to the American criminal justice system in history. Because of Gideon, every person accused of a crime in this country, whether wealthy or poor, is now guaranteed the right to counsel.  
On June 3, 1961, a burglary occurred at a pool hall in Panama City, Fla. Based mostly on the accusation of one witness, the police arrested Clarence Gideon for breaking and entering. When Gideon appeared in court he asked the judge to appoint a lawyer to his case because he was too poor to hire one. The judge denied his request and he was tried that day. The jury deliberated less than 10 minutes and found Gideon guilty. He was sentenced to five years in prison. From his prison cell, Gideon wrote a letter in pencil to the U.S. Supreme Court. He argued that under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, he had a right to an attorney. The Supreme Court decided to hear his case and on March 18, 1963, held that every person charged with a felony offense is entitled to be represented by counsel even if they are too poor to hire one. Gideon got a new trial and this time was represented by an experienced attorney. The jury acquitted Gideon after only an hour of deliberation. Today, South Carolina has a statewide public defender system that is dedicated to ensuring that competent counsel will be provided in a manner that is fair and consistent throughout the state. Problems remain, however. According to the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense, public defenders represent over 80 percent of all felony cases in South Carolina. This heavy caseload places a huge burden on public defenders to provide adequate and meaningful representation. The struggle for a more just system continues. It is a remarkable story. As Attorney General Robert Kennedy said, “if an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in his prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court, and if the Court had not taken the trouble to look for merit 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 retried 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 American legal history has been changed.”

Michael H. Lifsey is a Sixth Circuit Public Defender