Gideon v. Wainwright 1963: Summary, Facts & Decision

Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

Clarence Gideon was a poor man who could not afford an attorney. In his trial, he was not provided one. He appealed to the Supreme Court, who ruled that if a person cannot afford a lawyer, the state must provide him with one.


On June 3rd, 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon, a 51-year-old homeless man, was charged with breaking into Bay Harbor Poolroom in Florida to steal beer, wine and coins. His arrest was based on a questionable eye witness and suspect circumstantial evidence. At his trial, Gideon asked for an attorney to represent him. He thought it was his fundamental right. However, the current law of the land only provided attorneys in death penalty cases. Gideon's request for an attorney was denied.

Clarence Gideon was a poor man who was denied an attorney at his trial because he could not afford one.

At trial, Gideon defended himself decently for a novice, but missed key opportunities that all lawyers would have exploited. For one, he didn't question jurors for bias and he didn't establish an alibi. Gideon was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison by a jury.

Determined to prove his innocence, Gideon began studying law in the prison library. He then petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case. Writing on a regular piece of paper and pencil, Gideon wrote out his petition by hand. He made a lot of grammatical mistakes but used what he learned from studying law in prison. The petition to hear his case was received by the Court in forma pauperis, which means without filing fees or multiple copies.

Previous Cases

The 6th amendment of the Constitution guarantees rights for criminal defendants. When the Framers of the Constitution wrote the amendment, they did so because in Great Britain it was normal for an attorney to be denied to a suspect in a felony case.

Using the 6th Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled that in all death penalty cases, an attorney should represent the defendant, even if he could not afford one (see Powell v. Alabama). Likewise, the Supreme Court expanded this in Johnson v. Zerbst, ruling that a lawyer be given in all federal criminal trials if a defendant cannot afford one. However, the Court oddly ruled that the states had no obligation to provide a lawyer in State courts (see Betts v. Brady). The Betts decision was heavily criticized, and many felt it did not protect 6th amendment rights. It is with this background that we must keep in mind Gideon v. Wainright.

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