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Gideon's Promise and the Innocent Defendant
By Barry C. Scheck and Sarah L. Tofte
In America today you are better off being rich, white, and guilty than poor, black, and innocent. —Conventional wisdom, 2003
On March 18, 1963 the Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright promised the “guiding hand of counsel” for the poor as well as the rich, for people of color as well as those who are white, and for the guilty as well as the innocent. The holding was simple: Indigents in felony cases who cannot afford a lawyer must be provided one. The broad and powerful rationale supporting the decision went back to first principles. Effective counsel is a fundamental right because it ensures all the other rights the Constitution affords an individual dragged into the dock to face accusers and the awesome power of the state. It not only protects the innocent from wrongful conviction, but promotes the integrity and efficient operation of the entire system by making sure law enforcement cannot cheat or cut corners when prosecuting the guilty.
Gideon’s simple holding, the promise of a “gui
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