How You Lost Your Right to Free Legal Counsel
Feds refuse to support historic Gideon v. Wainwright decision
By Neal Colgrass, Newser Staff
Posted Mar 15, 2013 7:00 PM CDT
Clarence Gideon.   (Wikimedia Commons)

(Newser) – Fifty years ago, a letter from a petty thief inspired the US Supreme Court to grant all criminal suspects the right to legal counsel—but today that right is effectively ebbing away, writes Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic. The thief was Clarence Gideon, and his case became the landmark Supreme Court decision of Gideon v. Wainwright. "Gideon's story is really a fable," writes Cohen. "A mighty court hears the cry of the lowliest man." That lowly man won an attorney for himself and for all other poor criminal defendants in felony trials who followed. But today the federal government won't force states to fund the system, so overworked public attorneys have little time to represent their clients.

The problem is nothing new, but it's gotten worse as states cut the budgets of public defender programs—particularly in the South, where Texas refuses to fund attorneys for the poor and Georgia herds juveniles through the system "like cattle," writes Cohen. And it's no mistake: States are purposely pressuring defendants to make plea deals, and rendering them unable to review their conviction with an attorney. Solutions? Civil libertarians could sue states into funding the system, or Congress could pass a law that mandates federal support. Until then, writes Cohen, "we are just lying to ourselves and each other when we pretend that there is equal justice in America." Click for his full article.

More From Newser
My Take on This Story
To report an error on this story,
notify our editors.
How You Lost Your Right to Free Legal Counsel is...
Show results without voting
You Might Like
Showing 3 of 105 comments
Mar 16, 2013 8:06 PM CDT
Ya gotta remember that court appointted attorneys work for ...........the court! Their job is to make things as easy as possible for..........the court. Just plead guilty, accept the deal and case please! Even if the whole program was well funded, we'd get the same thing.
Mar 16, 2013 7:02 PM CDT
I read things like this and I think how similar to pre-revolutionary France this nation is becoming. Sometimes, when I say it might be time for some people to experience the de Launay treatment, I'm not real certain if I am making a point with hyperbole or if I really mean it.
Mar 16, 2013 3:40 PM CDT
I had personal experience with this. I was arrested for a violation which I didn't commit, after I was laid off a few years ago. The city assigned me a PD, and the first time I met with him he told me he thought I was guilty. I figured he would do his job as an attorney and defend me despite his personal beliefs, which is taught in Ethics 101 at law school. I didn't know at the time I could have asked for a different PD, as it was my first experience with the system. I gave him lists of witnesses whose testimony would back my innocence, and paper evidence that I had no prior knowledge that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, however he would not reply to my voice-mails or e-mails, and when the trial arrived, he hadn't subpoenaed anyone, including a police officer who had investigated and found me not involved, or presented my physical evidence. It was my only copy and he refused to return when I requested by phone, email and certified letter after the trial. I even saw the paperwork in his tiny manila folder during the trial and was shocked when he didn’t present it. So the prosecutor had a field day and without a defense of any kind, I was convicted. Since the jury took two days to deliberate I believe that they were barely convinced and even one witness, like the police officer, would have changed the verdict. My PD didn't show up for the jury verdict or sentencing, and had moved to another county to practice the day of the verdict. I would call that a miscarriage of justice! I had to serve the minimum 6 months in jail and two years on probation, and now I have a misdemeanor on my record forever. All because the city either intentionally gave me an inept and dishonest PD, or he just wanted his "set fee" for the case and was just too lazy to do anything to defend me. Justice in America! As a side note, if I had chosen a judge only trial instead of a jury, I really think the verdict would have been innocent, because when the prosecutor asked that my bail be revoked and I go directly to jail, pending sentencing, the judge struck her down and released me for the month before sentencing, then gave me another month before beginning my sentence. This was apparently rare because the prosecutor was visibly shaken and angry at being rejected. The judge had heard my testimony, noticed that my PD had bailed before the verdict, and hadn't called any witnesses, along with the supposed "victims" overly dramatic comments at sentencing that she "had been diagnosed with PTSD" due to the alleged incident, and realized that everything wasn't "kosher" with my trial. If I had had the funds to hire a competent lawyer to file an appeal, it would have certainly been overturned and I would at least have had a new trial, with the knowledge that I would only accept an ethical PD the next time. Just maybe those federal cuts had narrowed the PD field in my small city, so it was only by chance that I got a lazy, unethical and incompetent PD to begin with. He obviously wasn't doing well as an attorney if he skipped out early to take cases in another county!