Today, March 18, commemorates 50 years since the United States Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright determined, for the first time, that poor defendants have a right to an attorney in criminal cases. And while most people waive flags and scream about any violation of Second Amendment guarantees, few recognize and fight for Americans’ rights regarding the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel.
As a background, Clarence Earl Gideon was an uneducated, unsophisticated, poor and homeless man who had grown up without his father. He began getting in trouble as a young boy and eventually was charged with burglary and theft from a pool hall where they alleged he stole a few bottles of beer. As a stroke of luck, Mr. Gideon asked for an attorney for his trial and was denied by the judge who reminded him that only death penalty defendants were entitled to counsel. Mr. Gideon was outmanned and outgunned and lost his trial easily against an experienced prosecutor. The judge sentenced him to the maximum penalty : 5 years in prison.
Mr. Gideon spent his time in prison researching whether he actually had the right to an attorney for his case, and he determined that he did indeed. He hand-wrote, in pencil, a letter to the Supreme Court (after Florida Courts had refused to hear his case) and the Supreme Court decided to review his case. The Court appointed prominent attorney, and later Supreme Court Justice, Abe Fortas to argue Mr. Gideon’s side. In a landmark 9-0 ruling, the Court determined not only did Mr. Gideon have the right to an attorney, but that the States had to provide attorneys for poor defendants.
As a result of the decision, 2000 inmates in Florida alone were freed. Mr. Gideon was not. The State of Florida sought to re-try Mr. Gideon and, with the help of his new attorney, Mr. Gideon was found NOT guilty.
Mr. Gideon’s acquittal at re-trial speaks volumes about the necessity for an attorney. Yet, if you run a simple google search about Gideon’s amazing promise to protect our Constitutional rights, the search results will discuss the failure of this promise. Public defenders are saddled with more cases than any attorney could handle. As a recent attorney at the Riverside County public defender office in Indio, I know this issue firsthand. As a felony trial attorney, I had more cases than I could reasonably take to trial in 4 years, even while I had cases carrying the potential result of life in prison without parole. During my time at the office, felony preliminary hearing attorneys had caseloads ranging from 60-120 at a time. These attorneys spend a majority of their time in court waiting for their cases to be called and have little time to investigate, research the law, or meet with their clients. Misdemeanor attorneys have caseloads ranging from 120-200 cases at a time. That’s 120 people to meet with,120 investigation requests to write, 120 discovery requests to submit, witnesses to interview, etc., etc….and they are assigned new cases every day. With these sheer numbers, it’s easy to see why even the most dedicated, intelligent, and hard-working public defender might not be able to do as much as they would like on a case.
This is the story at public defender offices across the country. To be fair, California has come a long way in providing the resources for indigent defense, but as you can judge by the numbers above, it’s still not enough. And other state public defender offices are even more overwhelmed.
As you read this, you may be asking why you should care about this issue. First, consider that in Riverside County alone over a year (this is a few years back), the Prosecution had a guilty verdict rate on all charges of around 45% in the cases tried that year (this is from memory and taken from a local judge’s statistics). That means that 55% of people were judged to have been wrongfully held in jail, had their freedom denied, lost their jobs, and spent a lot of time fighting unjust charges. That wrongfully accused person could be you. Remember Mr. Gideon? He was only guilty of leaving a pool hall at the wrong time.
Second, attorneys keep the police in check. Do you know if you were legally stopped? You might question the validity of the police stopping and searching you, or of the police busting down your door and searching your house, but do you truly know if the stop was legal? Do you know how to find out? A good attorney will know almost at first glance if the stop or search was valid. A good attorney will further know how to suppress the evidence or statements that you gave due to the unlawful stop or search. In my practice, I have been told by police officers multiple times after questioning them that they will never do a practice again because I had evidence or statements thrown out of court. Good attorneys change the way the police treat you – for the better.
Finally, attorneys may be the only one on your side. Many clients have told me that I am the only person who believed in their innocence and fought for them. The prosecution is always well-funded and has the benefit of the local police, the sheriff’s department, their own investigators, the Department of Justice, and sometimes even the FBI and ICE to aid them. Add these overwhelming resources to the judge in your case, who most likely recently left the prosecutor’s office, and the jurors who stare at you and overwhelmingly believe that if you’re sitting in that defendant’s chair, “you must have done something.” Can you imagine the weight of all this on you, an innocent man or woman? Your attorney is the only thing that stands between you and this overwhelming show of governmental power. It can happen to you. Believe me.
I get teary whenever I read any individual story of a man exonerated after being wrongfully convicted (over 200 individuals from death row alone!). Let’s just hope that people begin to take the 6th Amendment as seriously as the 2nd and finally fulfill Gideon’s broken promise.