At the time that Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with breaking and entering into a Panama City, Florida pool hall and stealing money from vending machines, the state of Florida provided attorneys to criminal defendants only in cases where a possible penalty was death. In all other criminal cases, defendants had to either pay for their own lawyer or go without. In Gideons case, he went without, and he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.
He eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled his conviction was unconstitutional. The Court held that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to counsel in all criminal cases where defendants are charged with a serious offense, even if they cannot afford one themselves.
372 U.S. 335 (1963)
CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF FLORIDA
Charged in a Florida State Court with a noncapital felony, petitioner appeared without funds and without counsel and asked the Court to appoint counsel for him, but this was denied on the ground that the state law permitted appointment of counsel for indigent defendants in capital cases only. Petitioner conducted his own defense about as well as could be expected of a layman, but he was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment. Subsequently, he applied to the State Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, on the ground that his conviction violated his rights under the Federal Constitution. The State Supreme Court denied all relief.
Held: The right of an indigent defendant in a criminal trial to have the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial, and petitioner's trial and conviction without the assistance of counsel violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Betts v. Brady, 316 U. S. 455, overruled.
Reversed and cause remanded.