We owe our American ideal of public defense to an aging drifter and a brilliant lawyer from Memphis
This week, our office and defender systems across the country celebrated Public Defense Week in collaboration with the National Association for Public Defense. Each day this week, we focused on a vital issue our public defenders and clients face: excessive bail, fines & fees; abolishing the death penalty; racial injustice & implicit bias and juvenile justice. All of this leading up to today — the anniversary of the Gideon v Wainwright (1963) decision.
Beginning at age 16, Clarence Earl Gideon spent much of his life in and out of prison for thefts, burglaries and robberies. In fact, his first experience with incarceration came by way of his mother, who hauled him into a Hannibal, Missouri jail for running away from home. Throughout his 61 years, Gideon would serve time in Missouri, Kansas and Texas prisons. His final, and what would become, pivotal brush with the law was a 1961 arrest for allegedly breaking into the vending machines in a Panama City, Florida, pool hall.
Gideon claimed innocence and asked for a court-appointed attorney. The judge denied his request, citing state law, which only allowed for court-appointed counsel in capital cases. So Gideon, a high school dropout, was left to defend himself. Not surprisingly, he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. Determined, Gideon filed a habeus corpus petition with the Florida Supreme Court claiming the lack of a court advocate was unconstitutional. The Florida court denied his petition, but the U.S. Supreme Court eventually reviewed it.
In 1963, Memphian Abe Fortas and a team of highly respected lawyers argued Clarence Gideon’s case, and the court issued a unanimous decision finding that his conviction was unconstitutional. The Court held that the Sixth Amendment provides the right to appointed counsel in state felony cases. The Court further held that providing counsel for indigent defendants is an essential element of a “fair trial” and that because of the Fourteenth Amendment, the states are responsible for meeting this mandate.
Clarence Gideon was eventually given appointed counsel on the original charges and was acquitted.
March 18th, 2017 marks the 54th Anniversary of Gideon vs Wainwright (1963).
But the legacy of Gideon stands on uneven ground in Shelby County and throughout this country. The Shelby County Public Defender system and many across the U.S. are underfunded and overflowing with poor clients. It is a scenario too often thrust upon the backs of the poor and uneducated – the Clarence Earl Gideons of today.
You may never need the help of a public defender, but the safety of our community and, certainly, the health of our democracy, depends on everyone, regardless of income, receiving a fair shake in the courtroom.
Read more about the Gideon case and its ties to Memphis here:
You can see how public defenders across the country celebrated public defense and shined a light on issues facing defenders and their clients by looking at these hashtags on Facebook and Twitter #DefendGideon #TippingtheScales #CelebratePublicDefense
Join our office and defenders across the country as we recognize the lawyers, investigators, social workers, mediation specialists, law clerks, paralegals and support staff who fight on behalf of their clients every day.
The Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender are powered by more than 80 lawyers and 40 support staff and managers. Sounds like a huge staff. Until you realize those attorneys represent 35 thousand people a year. Many of our lawyers have caseloads more than twice that recommended by the U.S. Justice Department. Try protecting someone’s constitutional rights when you have 900 cases.
Some of the best trained lawyers from some of the best law schools in the country work in our office. We either need more of them or if you ask us, we’d rather have a smaller, smarter and more humane criminal justice system – one that points people toward more productive lives instead of setting them up for a quick return to jail.
For nearly a century — the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office has provided zealous counsel to tens of thousands of people. We are proud of this tradition and are dedicated to building upon it. You can watch this video about the incredible story that sparked the founding of the 3rd oldest public defense system in the country.
During this Public Defense Week our office and defenders across the country in collaboration with the National Association for Public Defense are sharing stories and statistics to honor the anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright (1963) the landmark Supreme Court decision that established public defender offices across the country. Go to these hashtags on Facebook and Twitter #CelebratePublicDefense #DefendGideon #TippingtheScales
We need lawmakers, community leaders and all of our neighbors to support the work of our public defenders and staff. We need you to fight policies that decimate neighborhoods and put scores of people, disproportionately people of color, in cages. We need people like you to fight these policies that negatively affect their lives and those of their loved ones long after they’ve completed their sentences.
Here’s what you can do to support public defenders and their clients:
Each day this week, defenders across the country honor Public Defense Week by looking at an issue that affects our clients. Today, it’s about our youngest clients.
In offices across the country, public defenders advocate for children in contact with the juvenile justice system. But too often, children go without adequate representation or any representation.
In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967), was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that ensured the right to a lawyer for children accused of crimes in juvenile court. The ruling also provided other due process rights, including the right to be notified of the charges, the right to cross-examine witnesses, and the right to not have to make a statement against oneself. Nearly 50 years ago with Gault, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that children need representation throughout the entirety of their cases. But today, few children receive meaningful access to a qualified juvenile defense attorney when in juvenile court.
Nationally, many juveniles accused of crimes never see a lawyer or receive ineffective legal advice. If they do get an attorney, it is usually the least experienced or the most burned out. Only 42 percent of youth in custody reported having a lawyer.
In Memphis, children accused of crimes are increasingly gaining access to quality defense through the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender. Lawyers in our Juvenile Defense Unit are trained in the highly-specialized area of juvenile defense. Social workers, investigators and legal support staff work on teams with lawyers to deliver children and their families a defense guided by the expressed interest of the child, plus guidance and support through the entire legal process.
Our Juvenile Defense Unit was created in 2013, after the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released a stinging report from a five year investigation that found the Shelby County Juvenile Court was systematically violating the due process rights of children and failing to provide equal protection for black children in the system.
The development of a Juvenile Defense Unit was a critical part of the Memorandum of Understanding the DOJ entered into with Shelby County and Juvenile Court in 2013. The Court is still working toward complete compliance and its progress or lack of is tracked by two DOJ monitors.
Juvenile justice advocates across the country are watching the development of this agreement, as it marks the first time the DOJ has moved against a juvenile court system.
Every day, our Shelby County Public Defenders and legal support staff fight the grave inadequacies still present in our juvenile courts, local law enforcement and school disciplinary policies. But they can’t do it alone. Support public defense and reform of the criminal justice of system at the local, state and federal level.
This week, help us as we join defenders across the country, in collaboration with National Association for Public Defense to raise awareness as we celebrate Public Defense Week March 13-18. Follow the hashtags #DefendGideon#TippingtheScales#CelebratePublicDefense on Facebook and Twitter and share.
Each day, we’ll focus on a vital issue facing public defenders and staff, but most importantly, our clients. The week will culminate on Saturday, March 18th as we celebrate the anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright (1963) the Supreme Court decision that established public defense systems across the country.
And all this year – we’ll be celebrating the 100th year of public defense in Shelby County. Watch this video to see the amazing story of how the case of a black man, wrongly accused of killing a white woman, sparked the creation of the 3rd old public defense system in the country.
Read these local stories about juvenile justice in Memphis: