Let’s say all police officers and all criminal prosecutors are sincere and honest. We know that’s not true, but bear with me a while. Let’s also say the police only arrest people they’re convinced are guilty, and that prosecutors only bring cases against defendants they truly believe committed the crime with which they’re charged. That’s probably closer to being true, but it’s still got a healthy bit of fantasy in it.
Let’s also acknowledge that even the most sincere and honest police and prosecutors occasionally make mistakes. For the sake of argument, let’s be generous and say the police and prosecutors are correct 98% of the time.
That necessarily means that even the most honest and sincere police and prosecutors are wrong 2% of the time. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it.
In 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 1,484,530 arrests for violent crimes. We’re talking murder, manslaughter, rape, armed robbery, aggravated and simple assault. If the police arrested the right person 98% of the time, it means they mistakenly arrested around 30,000 innocent people in 2010. That’s eighty people every single day on the calendar, arrested for violent crimes they didn’t commit.
And those are just the arrests for violent crimes. Add in property crimes, drug offenses, and social order crimes like prostitution, liquor violations, indecency and the like, and you end up with 13,122,110 arrests in 2010. Applying the same 98% rule, it means more than a quarter of a million innocent people were arrested in the U.S. in 2010.
The reality, of course, is uglier. Much uglier. Nobody believes the police arrest the right person 98% of the time. Nobody believes that every police officer and prosecutor is sincere and honest. Those are fantasies.
Now think about those poor bastards who are arrested and prosecuted for crimes they didn’t commit. When a person is being prosecuted for a crime, it’s listed on court dockets in this way: The State of Wherever versus Defendant Whozis. That actually means what it says. For example, if you’re going to trial in Wyoming (the least populated state in the Union), all the resources of the State can be arrayed against you. All those uniformed Wyoming police, all those detectives, all those lawyers and those forensic experts and those evidence technicians and those lab geeks — every one of them could be used in an effort to convict you.
What do you, the defendant, have? A defense attorney. Maybe an investigator, if you’re lucky. If you’ve got money, you can hire a team of defense lawyers and investigators, but you’ll never have anything like the resources available to the prosecutor. Still, if you’ve got money you’re in significantly better shape than somebody who’s poor. If you’re poor and accused of a crime, brother you’re in serious trouble. And it’s getting worse.
This is where our boy Clarence Earl Gideon comes into it. He was born in 1910, in Mark Twain’s old hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Gideon was basically Huck Finn without the charm. He quit school in the 8th grade and ran away from home. He was a petty thief for much of his life. He did time in Missouri, Kansas, and Texas — mostly for minor larcenies. He moved to Florida in the late 1950s. In 1961 the owner of the Bay Harbor Pool Room noticed that five dollars in change and a couple of bottles of beer were missing from his fine billiards establishment. A witness said he saw Gideon leave the pool hall with a bottle of wine and bulging pockets.
Gideon, with his history of theft, was arrested and prosecuted. Since he had no money for a lawyer, he had to defend himself in court. He asked the judge if he could have a lawyer to help him. The judge said no. Gideon was convicted, of course, and sentenced to five years in prison. He was 50 years old at the time.
While in prison, Gideon began reading about the legal system. Among the things he read was the Bill of Rights — specifically the 6th Amendment, which includes this:
…the accused shall enjoy the right to…the assistance of counsel for his defense.
Gideon wrote the FBI, essentially saying “Dude, I didn’t get any of that assistance of counsel stuff.” The FBI wrote back saying, “Well, that’s a shame. Sorry.” Gideon wrote the Supreme Court of Florida. “Dude, that assistance of counsel business? I didn’t get any of that.” The Supreme Court of Florida wrote back. “No, really? It sucks to be you.” Finally Gideon wrote to the Supreme Court of the United States. “Seriously guys, no assistance of counsel. WTF?” The Supreme Court wrote back. “Yo, Clarence, tell us all about it.”
Think of how remarkable that is. An uneducated prison inmate sent a hand-written (in pencil, no less) request to the highest court in the land, asking for justice — and they listened. More importantly, they acted.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s unanimous verdict in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright (Louie Wainwright was the director of the Florida Division of Corrections). That ruling changed the way criminal law was practiced in the United States. Gideon said you had the right to an attorney, Miranda said the police had to tell you about that right. Every time you watch a cop show on television and hear “You have the right to an attorney; if you can’t afford one, one will be appointed for you,” you can thank Clarence Earl Gideon.
In principle, the Gideon decision guaranteed that every person accused of a crime had the right to be represented by competent counsel. Justice Hugo Black wrote:
Reason and reflection require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him.
What Justice Black failed to consider is that ‘reason and reflection’ generally get kicked in the ditch by politics. In theory, the law may require poor folks be given a competent attorney. Of course, in theory the police and prosecutors always arrest and prosecute the guilty party. Theory, like ‘reason and reflection,’ tends to end up bloody and confused in the ditch.
A half century after Gideon, the entire indigent defense system is pretty much fucked up and getting worse. The system has never been adequately funded (paying lawyers to represent poor folks has never been a very high priority), but in this era of drastic cuts in state budgets, indigent defense funding it getting it in the neck.
Remember, some of these people are innocent. Greg Bright, the man in the first photograph, was convicted of murder based on the testimony of one eyewitness who claimed to have seen the crime from her apartment window. If the defense had had the resources to hire an investigator, they’d have found the witness had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, had a history of visual and auditory hallucinations, was a heroin addict, and lived in an apartment that didn’t overlook the crime scene. One day of competent investigating would have saved Greg Bright 27 years of prison.
Here’s the really scary part: Bright was convicted at a time when indigent defense had better funding than it has now. The reality is that if you’re poor and you get arrested and charged with a crime, you’re not very much better off today than Clarence Earl Gideon was fifty years ago.