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Griffin v. Illinois: Case & Decision

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
The ability to appeal a trial verdict is a right in a fair and impartial judicial system. In this lesson, you'll learn how the decision in Griffin v. Illinois affects the rights of indigent defendants wanting to appeal their case.

Griffin v. Illinois

Should you be denied the right to a trial because you're poor? In the United States, criminal defendants have the constitutional right to legal representation - even if they don't have the money to pay for an attorney. But what happens when defendants don't have the money to pay for necessary court documents for the case? Should they still get their day in court?

This is the dilemma at the heart of the Griffin v. Illinois case that was argued in 1955 and decided in 1956. Read on to learn more about the case and the verdict.

Fair and Equal Treatment

Before getting into the facts of the case, let's review the rights that were in question in Griffin v. Illinois. In 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified, which extended important rights to the citizens of the states through an equal protection clause that required the states to treat their citizens equally and a due process clause that required state governments to provide procedural safeguards when taking away a person's life, liberty or property.

Facts of the Case

Three friends, James Crenshaw, Richard Riles and Judson Griffin entered a downtown Chicago store and tied up the store's owner and three others in the store. They took some money and some items and fled. They were arrested in a park six days later, and at a line-up, they were identified by two of the witnesses, one of whom recognized Griffin, in part, from the same jacket he wore on the day of the robbery. The other witness picked two of the men out of a line-up that contained only the three defendants.

Crenshaw, Riles and Griffin were convicted and sentenced. Crenshaw and Griffin wanted to appeal the verdict. Illinois' Post-Conviction Hearing Act allowed for appeals based on questions arising under the state or federal Constitution, but not for issues of trial errors and sufficiency of evidence which were being alleged in this case. Crenshaw and Griffin also needed a transcript of the trial proceedings to appeal, but they could not afford one. A companion law allowed for the provision of free transcripts, but only in capital cases, also known as death penalty cases. Crenshaw and Griffin petitioned the court for a free transcript, but they were denied by the Illinois state court of appeals as well as the Illinois Supreme Court. They appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court had to decide if denying the defendants a free transcript violated the due process rights guaranteed to them by the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court determined that the defendants' rights were violated. Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion in which he started his analysis with the assumption that the alleged errors made in the trial court were valid and could well amount to a reversal of the conviction. He then reasoned that if a reversal was a possibility, then the defendants may have been denied a chance of relief based on their status of being poor.

Because of this, Black held that the defendants' substantive and procedural due process rights were violated. Years of court precedence regarding the due process clause has developed two categories of violations: substantive due process and procedural due process.

Substantive due process, refers to the limitation placed on the substance of legislation. It basically means a law can't be written so that it violates a person's fundamental rights. Justice Black reasoned that since the act did not allow free transcripts for trial errors, such as admissibility and sufficiency of evidence, then it was unconstitutional as written.

Procedural due process safeguards individuals from fundamental unfairness in the procedures used when taking away someone's life, liberty or property. The law may be valid, but the application of the law might ignored those rights. In this case, the Illinois appeals court denied Griffin's petition because no transcript was provided, and to obtain a free transcript, a substantial constitutional issued must be raised, which there was none.

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