Chapter 4 Gideon v. Wainwright

The Surprising Power of a Prisoner Petition

In: Painting Constitutional Law

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This chapter tells the story of Florida inmate Clarence Gideon, a most unlikely champion for the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to counsel for poor criminal defendants. Before Gideon wrote his famous letter from his jail cell, the Supreme Court had narrowly interpreted the Sixth Amendment leaving the vast majority of poor criminal defendants tried in state courts without access to a lawyer. Clarence Gideon’s hand-written appeal to the Supreme Court sparked a fundamental change in our criminal justice system, resulting in the Court declaring the right to counsel essential to a fair trial and requiring states to provide lawyers to poor criminal defendants. Although the Supreme Court has subsequently limited the application of the holding in Gideon v. Wainwright and the states have fallen woefully short in meeting their obligation to provide lawyers for poor criminal defendants, Clarence Gideon’s contribution remains remarkable and worthy of celebration.

Painting Constitutional Law

Xavier Cortada’s Images of Constitutional Rights

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