Clarence Earl Gideon was about 50-years old when he was arrested in relation to the theft of money and wine from a pool hall in Panama City, Fla., in 1961. Gideon’s father had died when he was young, and Gideon himself quit school after eighth grade, running away from home and becoming a drifter. By the time Gideon was 16 he already had a criminal record, one that would follow him up until that fateful day when he was arrested, tried, and convicted of breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny. Gideon was too poor to pay for any type of defense in the case, and back in 1961 in Bay County, Fla., that meant you had to defend yourself against even the toughest prosecuting attorneys unless you were convicted of a capital offense. So it was that the Gideon’s judge denied him access to a lawyer, Gideon defended himself, lost, and was sentenced to the maximum prison term of one year.
While serving his time, Gideon learned a little bit about law and wrote a 5-page letter to the Supreme Court about how his right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment had been violated. The Supreme Court eventually decided to take his case, and, under the argument that “you cannot have a fair trial without counsel,” ruled in Gideon’s favor. The landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright, set precedent that states had to provide counsel for criminal defendants who could not afford counsel, essentially owing to the eventual segment of the Miranda Rights that basically read “if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” After a retrial, Gideon was set free, and the legal landscape of the United States of America was changed.