Gideon V. Wainwright - Supreme Court Decision

Supreme Court Decision

The final decision was announced on March 18, 1963; the opinion of the Court was delivered by Justice Hugo Black. The three concurring opinions were written by Justices Clark, Douglas and Harlan.

In it, the court specifically praised its previous ruling in Powell v. Alabama. Whether or not the Powell v. Alabama decision applied to non-capital cases had sparked heated debate. Betts v. Brady initially decided that, unless there were special circumstances like illiteracy, stupidity or being in an especially complicated trial, there was no need for a court-appointed attorney. Gideon v. Wainwright overruled Betts v. Brady, which had allowed selective application of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to the states, itself previously binding only in federal cases. Instead, the court held that the right to the assistance of counsel was a fundamental right, essential for a fair trial, thereby emphasizing the procedural safeguards needed for due process of law. In this sense, the meaning is specifically that no one, regardless of wealth, education or class, should be charged with a crime and then be forced to face his accusers in court without the guidance of counsel.

Justice Clark's concurrent opinion stated that the Constitution never states whether a case is capital and non-capital, so legal counsel needs to be provided in all cases. Justice Harlan's concurrent opinion stated that the mere existence of a serious criminal charge constituted in itself special circumstances requiring the services of counsel at trial.

The court remanded the case to the Supreme Court of Florida for "further action not inconsistent with this decision." Gideon was then retried with W. Fred Turner serving as his appointed counsel. He was acquitted.

Gideon v. Wainwright was one of a series of Supreme Court decisions that confirmed the right of defendants in criminal proceedings to counsel during trial, on appeal, and in the subsequent cases of Massiah v. United States, 377 U.S. 201 (1964) and Miranda v. Arizona 384 U.S. 436 (1966), even during police interrogation.

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