The Right to Counsel in Criminal Cases

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) was a landmark ruling in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendant, citing major constitutional violations. The basis of the Supreme Court decision was the Constitution that requires the state to provide defendants (who cannot afford a lawyer) in criminal cases with an attorney (Cornell Law School. n.d.). Gideon faced theft charges after getting away with money from vending machines in a Florida pool in Panama City (Backus & Marcus, 2018). During the trial, Gideon could not hire a lawyer and, therefore, requested one for representation in court. Unfortunately, according to the court, the state of Florida appointed lawyers only for defendants facing serious charges that could eventually lead to death penalties if found guilty. After serving a five-year sentence in prison, Gideon filed a petition to the Supreme Court in Florida (Backus & Marcus, 2018). In his petition, he stated that the ruling was unconstitutional because he was denied attorney representation during the case. The Court denied his petition, which he later in 1963 sent an appeal in the U.S. Supreme court.

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The Supreme Court judges agreed in a unanimous decision that the conviction was against the law and violated the Constitution because Gideon was denied a defense attorney during the trial. The ruling was aligned with the provisions of the sixth amendment that grants defendants the right to representation in serious criminal offenses even when they cannot afford a lawyer (Backus & Marcus, 2018). It states that In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to have the assistance of counsel for his defense. Before the 1930s, the courts interpreted the clause as restricting the state from denying defendants a lawyer during the hearing. However, from the 1930s onwards, the interpretation changed to one requiring defense attorneys in serious cases by the state (Powell v. Alabama 1932).

According to the Supreme Court, the U.S. criminal justice system was adversarial, and that it was the states responsibility to ensure the defendants were accorded a fair trial in Court. In conclusion, the Court stated that a defense lawyer was fundamental and essential to fair trials in the U.S. (Backus & Marcus, 2018). After that, Gideon was granted representation by being assigned an attorney, Abe Fortas, to represent him in the trial. The public attorney successfully represented the defendant, and the Supreme Court ruled in Gideons favor (Cornell Law School. n.d.). The case was then sent back to Florida for retrial, after which Gideon was cleared of all charges. The case represents a historic ruling later immortalized in the movie Gideon’s Trumpet in 1980. The issue was significant and led to reforms in the criminal justice system. In 1972 Argersinger v. Hamlin, the Supreme Court revised the right to a defense attorney and included all defendants charged with crimes that could result in imprisonment (Backus & Marcus, 2018). Gideon v. Wainwright became a landmark case and overthrew previous cases, such as the decision of Betts v. Brady (1942).In this case, a farmer from Maryland, Smith Betts, had been denied attorney representation by the state, arguing that the state could only provide attorneys for capital offenses (Backus & Marcus, 2018). Therefore, Gideon v. Wainwright gave rise to new approaches in the United States criminal justice system.

 

 

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