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Gideon v. Wainwright

Gideon V Wainwright

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) is a landmark Supreme Court decision in which the court held that, based on the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, all defendants in criminal cases must be appointed counsel if they cannot afford their own attorneys. The Sixth Amendment provides citizens with the right to a "speedy and public trial" as well as the "Assistance of Counsel for his defense". The rights of this Amendment were found by the Court, through the application of the Fourteenth Amendment, to apply to defendants in State courts as well as Federal courts.


In 1961, Gideon was put on trial for allegedly stealing a small amount of money and possessions from a local bar in Bay Harbor, Florida. Gideon was given a trial in front of a jury and represented himself. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in State prison. Gideon appealed to the Florida Supreme Court on the basis that he was denied the right to an attorney which violated his Sixth Amendment rights. Gideon's appeal was denied. Although this right was guaranteed in Federal courts, the issue of the right to an attorney in State courts had been controversial since the divided decision of Betts v. Brady.

From State prison, Gideon wrote an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court where he argued that the Fourteenth Amendment applied the rights of the Sixth Amendment to State courts. He filed suit against the Secretary to the Florida Department of Corrections, Louie L. Wainwright, claiming that he had been denied the right to an attorney and forced to represent himself in his criminal conviction.

Gideon was eventually awarded another trial in which he hired W. Fred Turner as his attorney. In this retrial in State court, Turner was able to discredit the testimony of an eyewitness, and as a result, Gideon was acquitted of the charges.

In the Supreme Court ruling of Gideon v. Wainwright, the unanimous decision overturned the ruling of Betts v. Brady which ruled that the Sixth Amendment applied only to cases heard in the Federal courts. Gideon v. Wainwright extended the right to an attorney to all felony cases. It held this right to be fundamental. In order to provide a fair trial to a defendant as specified by the Sixth Amendment, all defendants must have access to defense counsel. Regardless of the fact that some defendants may not be able to afford counsel, they are still afforded this right and counsel must be provided to them.

As a result of the Gideon v. Wainwright decision, the rights of the U.S. Constitution were enforced more stringently. Previously, the right to an attorney in State courts was based on the facts of each individual case and then it was determined whether this person required counsel.

After the Gideon v. Wainwright case, the right to an attorney was offered regardless of the facts of the case. After the Gideon v. Wainwright decision, many changes were made to the public defender system. It was mandated that all State courts offer the services of a public defender who was properly trained in all aspects of the legal system.

NEXT: Jacobson v. Massachusetts 1905

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