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Gideon v. Wainwright – Case Background


Read the Case Background and Key Question. Then analyze Documents A-I. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of Documents A-I, as well as your own knowledge of history.

Case Background

At the time the Constitution was adopted, British courts denied lawyers to individuals charged with treason or felonies. People accused of criminal misdemeanors, however, were provided lawyers. The American colonies and, later, the states, rejected this practice. Most of the original thirteen states allowed defendants in all cases to have lawyers. Through the years, the Supreme Court has heard several cases involving the question of whether poor criminal defendants had a right to a lawyer at public expense, or whether the Sixth Amendment merely meant that the government could not stop accused persons from hiring one.

In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested in Florida for breaking into a Panama City pool hall with the intent to steal money from the vending machines. This was a felony. When Gideon appeared in court, his request for a court appointed lawyer was denied, as Florida law only required lawyers for defendants charged with capital offenses. Gideon defended himself at trial. He was found guilty, and sentenced to five years in prison.

While in prison, Gideon made frequent use of the prison library. With the knowledge he gained there, along with the help of a fellow inmate with a legal background, he submitted a hand-written petition to the Supreme Court. In his petition, he challenged the constitutionality of his conviction, as he had not been able to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.