Right to counsel
These days, the right to counsel, and the right against self-incrimination are things we pretty much take for granted. it wasn’t always so. Gideon’s Trumpet is a book about a major legal case that was decided by the US Supreme Court in 1963. The case involved a man in Florida, Clarence Earl Gideon. A court in Florida refused to appoint legal counsel for Gideon, because Florida law at the time only allowed for court-appointed defense lawyers in capital cases. Gideon was convicted of burglary, and sentenced to five years. After submitting a hand-written petition to the US Supreme Court, that body took up his case. That resulted in a 9-0 SCOTUS decision in Gideon’s favor. He was retried and, with the help of counsel, was acquitted by a jury after an hour of deliberation.
In 1965, Author Anthony Lewis wrote a book about Gideon v. Wainwright, the case. The book became a TV-movie in 1980.
There was a time, right around when my younger sister was born, that we were “between houses.” My parents wanted to buy a lot and build a house, so they decided to sell our house, and we lived in an apartment complex for a while. One of the things that I liked about apartment living was the bookmobile. The library came to me rather than the other way around, so that was a fun thing.
One of my dad’s friends was a librarian and drove the bookmobile. While I picked stuff to read, Mr. Jim would regularly choose a book for me. He checked it out in my name, and put it in my hands, on top of anything else I’d picked. Gideon’s Trumpet was one of those books.
The book fascinated me. The legal principles weren’t all that hard for a fifth-grader to comprehend. Lewis presented the background of the story, offered an interesting portrait of Abe Fortas, the attorney appointed to represent Gideon before SCOTUS. (Fortas went on to become a Justice himself.) I love pomp and circumstance. Lewis’s descriptions of oral arguments before the court were fascinating. The decision was landmark.
All defendants have the right to counsel. It’s a Big Deal, and it resonated with ten-year old me. I watched all the cop and lawyer shows on the teevee. I went on to join the debate team in high school. The notion of going to law school crossed my mind.
I didn’t forget that concept. It’s one of those things that stuck with me, through the years, just like the times when a friend who is an attorney would point out that bail is not punishment. Bail backs up a promise to appear for trial.
Other than traffic tickets, I’ve been fortunate to have never needed defense counsel in a criminal proceeding. I’ve had friends, colleagues, and others in my life who have been in that position. When I taught high school, one of my students was accused of murder in Jefferson Parish. I was 23 at the time. The case sent me reeling. There wasn’t much I could do, as I wasn’t directly involved, yet it still tore at me. He had representation. Still, the case was very upsetting for me.
There have been other cases, other people, who weren’t so fortunate. The idea that capital cases happened where lawyers slept through trial, and their clients ended up executed was incredibly disturbing.
Every defendant should have competent defense, even if, no, especially if their crimes will put them on death row or they will face life imprisonment. I knew this when I was ten. Clarence Earl Gideon made that much of an impression on me.