Clarence Earl Gideon

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Clarence Earl Gideon
Clarence Earl Gideon.jpg
Clarence Earl Gideon, circa 1961
Born (1910-08-30)August 30, 1910
Hannibal, Missouri
Died January 18, 1972(1972-01-18) (aged 61)
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Criminal penalty multiple sentences
Conviction(s) robbery, burglary, larceny, theft (multiple)

Clarence Earl Gideon (August 30, 1910 – January 18, 1972) was a poor drifter accused in a Florida state court of felony theft. His case resulted in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, holding that a criminal defendant who cannot afford to hire a lawyer must be provided with a lawyer at no cost. At Gideon's first trial, he represented himself, and he was convicted. After the Supreme Court ruled that the state had to provide defense counsel for the indigent, Florida retried Gideon. At his second trial, which took place in August 1963 with a lawyer representing him and bringing out for the jury the weaknesses in the prosecution's case, Gideon was acquitted.

Early life[edit]

Clarence Earl Gideon's father, Charles Roscoe Gideon, died when he was three. His mother, Virginia Gregory Gideon, remarried Marrion Anderson shortly after. Gideon, after years of defiant behavior and chronic 'playing hooky', quit school after eighth grade, aged 14, and ran away from home, living as a homeless drifter. By the time he was sixteen, Gideon had begun compiling a petty crime profile.

Gideon spent a year in a reformatory for burglary before finding work at a shoe factory. At age 18, he was arrested in Missouri and charged with robbery, burglary, and larceny. Gideon was sentenced to 10 years but released after three, in 1932, just as the Great Depression was beginning.

Gideon spent most of the next three decades in poverty. He served some more prison terms at Leavenworth, Kansas for stealing government property; in Missouri for stealing, larceny and escape; and in Texas for theft.

Between his prison terms Gideon was married four times. The first marriage ended quickly, but the fourth to Ruth Ada Babineaux (in October, 1955) lasted. They settled in Orange, Texas, in the mid-1950s, and Gideon found irregular work as a tugboat laborer and bartender until he was bedridden by tuberculosis for 3 years.

In addition to three children that Ruth already had, Gideon and Ruth had three children, born in 1956, 1957 and 1959: the first two in Orange, the third after the family had moved to Panama City, Florida. The six children were later removed by welfare authorities. Gideon started working as an electrician in Florida, but began gambling for money because of his low wages. He did not serve any more time in jail until 1961.

Arrest, conviction, and Gideon v. Wainwright[edit]


On August 4, 1961, $5 in change and a few bottles of beer and soda were stolen from the Pool Room, a pool hall/beer joint that belonged to Ira Strickland, Jr. Strickland also alleged that $50 was taken from the jukebox.[citation needed] Henry Cook, a 22-year-old resident who lived nearby, told the police that he had seen Gideon walk out of the joint with a bottle of wine and his pockets filled with coins, and then got into a cab and left. Gideon was arrested in a tavern.

First trial[edit]

Being too poor to pay for counsel, Gideon was forced to defend himself at his trial after being denied a lawyer by his trial judge, Robert McCrary, Jr.. On August 4, 1961, Gideon was tried and convicted of breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny, and on August 25, five days before his 51st birthday, Gideon was given the maximum sentence by Judge McCrary, which was five years in prison.

Gideon v. Wainwright[edit]

Main article: Gideon v. Wainwright

Gideon, then in jail, studied the American legal system and came to the conclusion that Judge McCrary had violated his constitutional right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment, applicable to the State of Florida through the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He then wrote to an FBI office in Florida and next to the Florida Supreme Court, but was denied help. Then in January 1962, he mailed a five-page petition (petition for writ of certiorari) to the Supreme Court of the United States asking the nine justices to consider his complaint.[1] The Supreme Court, in reply, agreed to hear his appeal. Originally, the case was called Gideon v. Cochran and was argued on January 15, 1963. Abe Fortas was assigned to represent Gideon. Bruce Jacob, the Florida Attorney General, was assigned to argue against Gideon. Fortas argued that a common man with no training in law could not go up against a trained lawyer and win, and that "you cannot have a fair trial without counsel." Jacob argued that the issue at hand was a state issue, not federal; the practice of only appointing counsel under "special circumstances" in non-capital cases sufficed; that thousands of convictions would have to be thrown out if it were changed; and that Florida had followed for 21 years "in good faith" the 1942 Supreme Court ruling in Betts v. Brady. The hearing ended after it began. (The case's original title, Gideon v. Cochran, was changed to Gideon v. Wainwright after Louie L. Wainwright replaced H. G. Cochran as the director of the Florida Division of Corrections, a fact made known to the Supreme Court clerk by Jacob).

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously (9-0) in Gideon's favor in a landmark decision on March 18, 1963.[2]

Second trial[edit]

About 2,000 convicted people in Florida alone were freed as a result of the Gideon decision; Gideon himself was not freed. He instead got another trial.

Gideon chose W. Fred Turner to be his lawyer for his second trial. The retrial took place on August 5, 1963, five months after the Supreme Court ruling. Turner, during the trial, picked apart the testimony of eyewitness Henry Cook, and in his opening and closing statements suggested the idea that Cook likely had been a lookout for a group of young men who had stolen the beer and coins from Bay Harbor Pool Room. (Turner had been Cook's lawyer in previous cases.[3])

Turner also got a statement from the cab driver who took Gideon from the Bay Harbor Pool Room to a bar in Panama City, Florida, stating that Gideon was carrying neither wine, beer nor Coke when he picked him up, even though Cook testified that he watched Gideon walk from the pool hall to the phone, then wait for a cab. Furthermore, although in the first trial Gideon had not cross-examined the cab driver about his statement that Gideon had told him to keep the taxi ride a secret, Turner's cross examination revealed that Gideon had said that to the cab driver previously because "he had trouble with his wife."[3]

The jury acquitted Gideon after one hour of deliberation.[4]


In 1963, Robert F. Kennedy remarked about the case: "If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court; and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look at the merits in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter; the court did look into his case; he was re-tried with the help of competent defense counsel; found not guilty and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit. And the whole course of legal history has been changed."[5]

Later life[edit]

After his acquittal, Gideon resumed his previous way of life and married again some time later. He died of cancer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on January 18, 1972, at age 61. Gideon's family in Missouri accepted his body and buried him in an unmarked grave. The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union later added a granite headstone, inscribed with a quote from a letter Gideon wrote to his attorney, Abe Fortas:

"Each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind."

Portrayal on film[edit]

Gideon was portrayed by Henry Fonda in the 1980 made-for-television film Gideon's Trumpet, based on Anthony Lewis' book. The film was first telecast as part of the Hallmark Hall of Fame anthology series, and co-starred Jose Ferrer as Abe Fortas, the attorney who pleaded Gideon's right to have a lawyer in the Supreme Court, and later appointed as a justice of that court himself. Fonda was nominated for an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Gideon.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gideon, Clarence Earl (June 5, 1962). "Petition from Clarence Gideon." National Archives Transcription Pilot Project.
  2. ^ "State Must Pay Lawyers for Poor." The Miami News, March 18, 1963, p1.
  3. ^ a b Lewis, Anthony. "The Silencing of Gideon's Trumpet." The New York Times, April 20, 2003.
  4. ^ "Gideon Happy After Acquittal In Famed Case." St Petersburg Times, August 6, 1963, p1-B.
  5. ^ Kennedy, Robert (1963) quoted in "Clarence Earl Gideon v. Wainwright, U.S. Supreme Court, 1963: A Landmark in the Law." Division of Public Defender Services, State of Connecticut.

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