Clarence Earl Gideon: Unlikely World-Shaker

Where did Clarence Gideon get the idea that he was entitled to a free lawyer?

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Who was Clarence Earl Gideon, and where did he get the idea that he was entitled to a free lawyer?

Clarence Earl Gideon was not well-educated, but he was far from dumb or ignorant. A benign sort of career criminal (according to relatives, he just had a problem with stealing),1 more of his arrests ended with dismissals or acquittals than convictions. But where would a man with such extensive experience with the criminal justice system in several states have come by an abiding conviction - for lack of a better word - that due process requires the court to appoint a lawyer to represent any criminal defendant who cannot afford one? Gideon asserted that right in open court on August 4, 1961, when he was put on trial for breaking and entering the Bay Harbor Pool Hall in Panama City, Fla. Forced to represent himself, he still pled not guilty and tried his best to defend himself. He was convicted. Gideon was stubborn, and felt he had been gravely wronged by the state of Florida, and he would not give up.

Born august 30, 1910, in Hannibal, MO., Gideon had been in and out of prisons since he was 16. His father, a shoemaker, died when he was three, and his mother remarried. Gideon and his stepfather did not get along, and he ran away from home at age 14, "accept[ing] the life of a hobo and tramp," making his way as far as California before returning to Missouri about a year later.2 

Gideon's mother introduced him to incarceration shortly after his return. "When [sic] to my mother's brother and started living with him until my mother found out where I was at and she came and got me. Had me place in the jail at Hannibal which I excaped from the next day[.]" It was cold, and Gideon broke into a country store and stole some clothes. The store's owner caught him wearing the clothes the same day. This time, Gideon wrote, "My mother ask the court to send me to the reformatory which they did for a term of three years."3 

"Off all the prisons I have been in that was the worst I still have scar on my body from the whippings I received there anyway I was paroled after a year. I was then sixteen years old," he wrote.4 He got a job in a shoe factory soon after his release and married.

Gideon and his first wife managed to get along on his $25 a week, but when he found himself out of work at 18, he had his first serious run-in with the law when he was arrested after a one-man crime spree in his home state. A lawyer was appointed to represent him.

"I got without a job and I committed some crimes in 1928. I was caught and thru a court appointed attorney was sentenced to the Missouri Prison for ten years for robbery with three sentences of Burglary and larcney [larceny] running concurrently."5 He was paroled three years and four months later. That early experience probably helped cement his lifelong belief that due process required a lawyer for every man haled into court, rich or poor.

Gideon had at least four felony convictions and a host of minor infractions and arrests on his record. He spent more than half of the next two decades behind bars, but he was also something of an escape artist. The first time he was locked up, at age 15, he escaped from the Hannibal jail. In 1934, he was convicted of theft of U.S. government property and conspiracy and sentenced to three years in Fort Leavenworth, where he was assigned to the shoe factory. In 1939, he was arrested on an unknown charge and again escaped from jail before trial. In 1940, he was convicted of burglary and larceny and sentenced as a repeat offender. In 1943, he escaped from prison and went to work on the Southern Pacific Railroad as a brakeman, using an assumed name and forged Selective Service card. The following year he was arrested on a tip, convicted of escape, and imprisoned until January 1950. In 1951, he was convicted of an unspecified crime in Texas and served 13 months.6 

In most of the prisons in which Gideon had done time, prisoners routinely filed appeals and petitions claiming, per Betts v. Brady,7 that the trial court had erred in failing to find "special circumstances" - such as illiteracy, youth, mental defect - which would have entitled them to court-appointed counsel. Gideon's petition did not. Betts notwithstanding, Gideon simply asserted that, as a poor man, he was entitled to a lawyer, just like anybody else. The record of his 1961 trial for breaking and entering the Bay Harbor Pool Hall shows that his assertion of that right was absolute, if unfounded in law:

The Defendant: Your Honor, I said: I request this court to appoint Counsel to represent me in this trial.

The Court: Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint Counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the state of Florida, the only time the Court can appoint Counsel to represent a Defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint Counsel to represent you in this case.

The Defendant: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel.8 

Gideon, of course, was mistaken, but so was the judge. Florida law after Betts gave trial judges considerable discretion in appointment of counsel for defendants, and in some circuit courts appointment was fairly routine for serious felonies.

By now practically a "professional defendant," Gideon appealed his conviction to the Florida Supreme Court on the ground that he was denied counsel and due process of law. The court turned down his petition.

Prof. Bruce Jacob, who argued Gideon on behalf of the state of Florida, postulates that a fellow prisoner may have assisted Gideon with his petition. Gideon's cellmate was a former Palm Beach lawyer and municipal judge named Joseph A. Peel Jr., who was convicted of murdering a rival judge and his wife.9 Jacob's source for that interesting tidbit was none other than his friend and colleague W. Fred Turner, the able attorney who represented Gideon at his retrial. In a 2003 law review article, Jacob wrote, "According to Turner, Peel, Gideon's cellmate, stood over his shoulder as Gideon wrote and told him what to say."10 

"Peel was a murder er, but he had also been a lawyer. If Turner is right - that Peel helped Gideon with his petition - this might explain why no special circumstance was alleged," Jacob speculated.

[A] lawyer such as Peel would have understood that the Supreme Court was on the verge of overruling Betts and that the perfect mechanism to enable them to do this would be a petition for habeas alleging no special circumstances, a denial by state courts, and then a petition for certiorari alleging a denial of the right to counsel, but not alleging any special circumstances. Also, a lawyer would have been aware that Gideon lost nothing by "shooting for the moon" in this attempt.11 

Ironically, it would appear that Gideon had already given up his life of crime, if not his gambling and his drinking, by the time he was arrested for the break-in at the Bay Harbor Pool Hall. His arrest record notwithstanding, his last official conviction was in 1951. After the Bay Harbor poolroom case, he married for the fourth time and finally settled down to a quiet life of odd jobs and pumping gas.

Gideon died of cancer in Florida on January 18, 1972. He was only 61 years old.

His family brought his body back to Hannibal, and buried him in an unmarked grave, a few feet from his natural father, Charles Roscoe Gideon.

In November 1984, the American Civil Liberties Union placed a granite headstone on his grave.12 The stone quotes a line from the last paragraph of Gideon's November 1962 letter to Abe Fortas: "I believe that each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind."13 


  1. Hannibal Drifter Changed the Course of History, Hannibal Courier-Post, Oct. 19, 2011 (
  2. Letter from Clarence Earl Gideon to Abe Fortas (November 1962), in Anthony Lewis, Gideon's Trumpet 65-78 (Vintage 1966) (1964).
  3. Id. at 66-67.
  4. Id. at 67.
  5. Id.
  6. Culled from Gideon's letter to Fortas, supra, note 2.
  7. 316 U.S. 455 (1942). The question presented in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), sub nom. Gideon v. Cochran, Misc. No. 890, was simple: "Should this Court's holding in Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, be reconsidered?"
  8. State v. Gideon, trial transcript of Aug. 4, 1961, at 3-4; Lewis, supra at 10. The transcripts of Gideon's trial (Aug. 4, 1961) and retrial (Aug. 5, 1963) are available on NACDL's website at http://www.nacdl.
  9. Bruce R. Jacob, Memories of and Reflections About Gideon v. Wainwright, 33 Stetson L. Rev. 181 (2003). Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law at Stetson University, Prof. Jacob was the Assistant Attorney General of Florida who argued the state's case in Gideon v. Wainwright. See generally Bruce R. Jacob, Remembering Gideon's Lawyers, The Champion, June 2012 at 16.
  10. Bruce R. Jacob, Memories of and Reflections about Gideon v. Wainwright, 33 Stetson L. Rev. 181, 214-15 (2003).
  11. Id. at 216.
  12. Dominic Genetti, Right to an Appointed Attorney: Hannibal Native Changed U.S. Judicial System, Hannibal Courier-Post, Oct. 19, 2011 (
  13. Gideon concluded his 22-page letter to Abe Fortas:

    I believe that each era finds a [sic] improvement in law each year brings something new for the benefit of mankind. Maybe this will be one of those small steps forward, in the past thirty-five years I have seen great advancement in courts in penal servitude. Thank you for reading all of this. Please try to believe that all I want now from life is the chance for the love of my children the only real love I have ever had.

    Quoted in Lewis, supra, note 2 at 78.

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