March 18, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision Gideon v. Wainwright. The decision confirmed the right of the individual to counsel, even in cases not involving capital offenses. U.S. Attorney General and Senator Robert Kennedy described the case as having changed the course of American legal history.
The case began when an obscure inmate in a Florida prison, Clarence Earl Gideon, picked up a pencil and began writing his own lawsuit against the Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. Before the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, however, the Florida Supreme Court heard the appeal of the original conviction. Clarence Earl Gideon was convicted of robbery after the judge in a circuit court refused his request for counsel and he was forced to defend himself. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. The Florida Supreme Court confirmed the circuit court ruling, denying Gideon’s appeal for a writ of habeas corpus, which would have freed him on the grounds that he had been imprisoned illegally.
In 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the ruling of the Florida court, thereby establishing the principle that state courts were required to provide defendants in criminal cases with legal counsel. The case was retried (this time with representation for Gideon) five months after the Supreme Court decision. Gideon was acquitted.
View Gideon’s historic petition for writ of habeas corpus on Florida Memory.