Florida History Fair: You Have the Right to an Attorney

Every year, staff at the State Archives of Florida gets ready for the Florida History Fair by searching out primary source documents and compiling a list of resources for students and teachers. This year’s theme is “Rights and Responsibilities in History.”

Gideon v. Wainwright: The Right to an Attorney

U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy described  Gideon v. Wainwright as having changed the course of American legal history.

The decision confirmed the right of the individual to legal counsel, even in cases not involving capital offenses.

Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus submitted by Clarence Earl Gideon

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.

View Gideon’s historic petition for writ of habeas corpus on Florida Memory.

Portrait of Clarence Earl Gideon (ca. 1961)

Portrait of Clarence Earl Gideon (ca. 1961)

For more resources related to this year’s History Fair theme, see Resources for the 2014 Florida History Fair.

Links to resources related to Gideon include the transcript of State of Florida v. Gideon from the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida and oral histories collected by the Georgetown Law Library.

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