How One “Ordinary Inmate” Changed Legal History
Today is an important day! You may not know this but 54 years ago today, the United States Supreme Court said that anyone charged with a serious crime who wanted a lawyer but could not afford one must be given an attorney paid for by the State.
It all started when Clarence Earl Gideon, a man the Supreme Court called an “ordinary inmate,” asked for a lawyer when he was charged with a crime in Florida that he didn’t commit. The judge in Florida refused to give Mr. Gideon an attorney and made him try to defend his case on his own. That’s Mr. Gideon on the left trying to figure out the law that applied to his case.
Without a lawyer, Mr. Gideon was convicted, even though he was innocent. He complained to everyone he could think of, from the FBI to politicians in Washington. Finally, the Supreme Court listened and heard his complaint. In a unanimous decision, 54 years ago today, the Supreme Court decided that Gideon was entitled to an attorney and a new trial. They also ruled that an attorney must be appointed to anyone accused of a serious crime who asks for, but cannot afford, an attorney.
With his new court appointed attorney, Mr. Gideon was given a new trial and found Not Guilty.
But the story does not end there. Some states, like North Carolina, resisted the Court’s ruling. It took North Carolina seven years to fully comply with the Court’s ruling Mr. Gideon had fought so hard to accomplish. When North Carolina finally gave in, the Public Defender office you’re currently sitting in, here in Guilford County, was the first in the state, founded in 1970.
The Guilford County Public Defender is here because excellent legal representation is your right. We strive to live up to our motto every day:
The office of the Guilford County Public Defender strives to preserve society’s interest in the fair administration of justice by providing high quality, zealous advocacy to indigent clients using superior legal knowledge, preparation and trial skills.
But, without Clarence Earl Gideon, an inmate willing to stand up for his rights, from a swampy Florida prison, this office would not be here. You might still be forced to try to figure out how to defend your case on your own. It is worth remembering that anyone, even an “ordinary inmate” like Clarence Earl Gideon, can change the world if they put their mind to it.