It’s easy to overlook Clarence

The state lawyer for poor people accused of crimes has made the annual pilgrimage to the Capitol to go reiterate his plea for the money needed to give poor Missourians anything approaching the defense wealthier people accused of crimes can afford.

This time it was Michael Barrett sacrificing his forehead against the masonry, hoping our elected legislators would increase financing for this part of the criminal justice system by $25 million.  Governor Nixon has recommended a $1.5 million increase in funding but has not proposed adding any more lawyers.  Barrett uses the word “crisis,” a word used by his predecessors year after year.  Although legislators have nodded sympathetically each year as they already are doing this year, the crisis remains.

The idea that poor people had the same rights as wealthier people to be defended is more than 225 years old.  It’s part of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution as a general statement that everybody is entitled to a legal defense in court.   But the idea that poor people deserved equal protection might have its origin in an 1853 Indiana Supreme Court case that held publicly-financed criminal defense was one of the “principles of a civilized society.”   The Indiana Supreme Court opinion said, “It is not to be thought of in a civilized community for a moment that any citizen put in jeopardy of life or liberty should be debarred of counsel because he is too poor to employ such aid.  No court could be expected to respect itself to sit and hear such a trial.  The defense of the poor in such cases is a duty which will at once be conceded as essential to the accused, to the court and to the public.”

That was a recognition by one state.   But it was eleven decades before that principle of a civilized society was recognized as a national right.   This is the man from Missouri who is the face of that right.


This fellow who might easily be dismissed as a person of little consequence if we passed him on the street is Hannibal native Clarence Earl Gideon.  His father died when he was three.  His mother remarried but Clarence lived an aimless and sometimes troubling life that led him to drop out of school after the eighth grade and run away from home to live as a drifter at the age of 14.  He returned about a year later and lived with his mother’s brother until she learned he was back in town and had him jailed. He escaped one day later, broke into a store and stole some clothes. His mother asked a judge to send him to the Boonville Reformatory.  He later recalled, “Of all the prisons I have been in that was the worst. I still have a scar on my body form the whippings I received.”  He was paroled after a year, got a job in a shoe factory, and got married.  But he lost his job and was arrested on several charges not long after that.  A judge appointed a lawyer to represent him but he was sent to prison for ten years for burglary, larceny, and robbery. He was 18. He got out in 1932, after serving three of those years.  He went back to the penitentiary for stealing, larceny and escape and did prison time at Leavenworth for stealing government property and more time in a Texas prison for theft.

Gideon married four women during those troubled years, the last time a woman named Ruth in 1955, when he was 45 years old.  They lived in Texas where he worked from time to time as a tugboat deckhand and as a bartender until tuberculosis put him in bed for three years.  He and Ruth moved to Florida where child welfare authorities eventually took away their six children (three that Ruth brought to the marriage and the three they had together).  Gideon got a low-paying job as an electrician and started gambling to get extra money.

About three weeks before Gideon’s 51st birthday, he was accused of stealing money and beer from a pool room in Panama City.  In the space of two weeks, a judge refused to appoint a lawyer to represent him because Florida law allowed court-appointed lawyers only in capital cases. He was convicted of breaking and entering and was given the maximum sentence, five years.

Gideon, remembering that years earlier a Missouri judge had appointed a lawyer to represent him, began reading law books in prison and decided the Florida judge had violated his Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  The Florida Supreme Court refused to do anything.  So he went straight to the United States Supreme Court with a five-page handwritten petition in which he wrote, “It makes no difference how old I am or what color I am or what church I belong to if any. The question is I did not get a fair trial. The question is very simple. I requested the court to appoint me an attorney and the court refused.” The Supreme Court decided to hear his case and assigned future Justice Abe Fortas to represent Gideon.  The state of Florida argued that the issue was a state matter, not a federal one and that upholding Gideon’s position would result in thousands of convictions being thrown out.  Fortas argued that the average person untrained in the law had no hope of winning when arguing against a trained attorney.

The court’s opinion issued fifty-three years ago this month ordering a new trial for Gideon was unanimous. One line in the opinion bluntly stated, “Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.”

While Gideon was preparing for his second trial, two-thousand Florida prisoners were released.

His attorney, W. Fred Turner, destroyed the prosecution’s case in the second trial and the jury acquitted Gideon after only one hour of deliberation.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy observed, “If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court; and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look at the merits in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter; the court did look into his case; he was re-tried with the help of competent defense counsel; found not guilty and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit. And the whole course of legal history has been changed.”

Gideon married a fifth time and died of cancer in Fort Lauderdale early in 1972, still a pauper.  His family returned his body to Hannibal and buried him in a grave that remained unmarked until the American Civil Liberties union placed a stone in 1984.  The stone contains a quote from Justice Fortas, “Each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.”

A little more than one-hundred miles from Clarence Earl Gideon’s grave, almost half a century after his death and more than a half-century after the U. S. Supreme Court said poor people have the right to adequate representation in the criminal cases, Michael Barrett is pleading for the state to give his office the resources it needs to let today’s Clarence Gideons have that right.  And in a year when millions of dollars will be spent to influence public policy or to influence those who write public policy, the office that symbolizes a basic right all of us have is begging for nickels and dimes from a legislature that year in, year out, gives it a few pennies and nods sympathetically

Let me know what you think......