The Norman Transcript

March 18, 2013

Problems persist in indigent legal defense

By Mark Sherman
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — It is not the happiest of birthdays for the landmark Supreme Court decision that, a half-century ago, guaranteed a lawyer for criminal defendants who are too poor to afford one.

A unanimous high court issued its decision in Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18, 1963, declaring that states have an obligation to provide defendants with “the guiding hand of counsel” to ensure a fair trial.

But in many states today, taxpayer-funded public defenders face crushing caseloads, the quality of legal representation varies from county to county and people stand before judges having seen a lawyer only briefly, if at all.

Clarence Earl Gideon had been in and out of jail in his nearly 51 years when he was arrested on suspicion of stealing wine and some money from vending machines at a Panama City, Fla., pool hall in 1961. Gideon asked the judge for a lawyer before his trial, but was turned down. At the time, Florida only provided lawyers for indigent defendants in capital cases.

A jury soon convicted Gideon and the state Supreme Court upheld the verdict on appeal. Then, from his prison cell, Gideon scratched out his Supreme Court appeal in pencil on prison stationery. It arrived at the court early in 1962, when the justices were looking for a good case to take on the issue of indigent defense. The court appointed Washington lawyer Abe Fortas to represent him.

Just two months after hearing arguments, Justice Hugo Black wrote for the court that “in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”

Five months later, Gideon got a lawyer and a new trial, and the attorney poked holes in the prosecution’s case. A jury quickly returned its verdict: not guilty.

A half-century later, there are parts of the country where “it is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former prosecutor. Leahy said court-appointed lawyers often are underpaid and can be “inexperienced, inept, uninterested or worse.”

Few of those accused of crimes are rich, while 80 percent say they are too poor to afford a lawyer.

People who work in the criminal justice system have become numb to the problems, creating a culture of low expectations, said Jonathan Rapping, a veteran public defender who has worked in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and New Orleans.

For local news and more, subscribe to The Norman Transcript Smart Edition, or our print edition.