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On March 18, America will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. While most attorneys know the case of the man who dared to ask for a free lawyer at state’s expense, many Americans do not. It is hard to imagine that just four decades ago, a person charged with a felony in this country was not entitled to a lawyer unless he or she had the financial means to hire one. Clarence Earl Gideon, a 51-year-old drifter from Panama City, Fla., was an unlikely candidate to change the course of American legal history. Poor, uneducated and unemployed, he was what is known today as a “Three Striker.” He had first been jailed at the age of 14 for stealing clothing, and spent most of his life in and out of prison. Charged with burglarizing a poolroom, Gideon asserted his innocence and went to trial. Denied a lawyer and forced to represent himself, Gideon was convicted and sentenced to five years. In his handwritten, five-page pauper’s petition, Gideon claimed that his conviction violated due process because “all citizens tried for a felony crime should have the aid of counsel.” There was one problem with Gideon’s argument. Twenty years earlier, it had been presented to and rejected by the very court he was appealing to. The court had ruled 6-3 in Betts v. Brady that indigents had the right to counsel only in capital cases or where “special circumstances” could be shown. The implications of Gideon’s argument were staggering. The penal institutions of Florida and other states were full of thousands of prisoners who had been tried and convicted without a lawyer. If the Supreme Court reversed Gideon’s conviction, would all of these cases suffer the same fate? Despite these concerns, the court, led by Justice Hugo Black, reversed Gideon’s conviction and declared that every person charged with a felony was entitled to a lawyer, giving birth to public defender’s offices across the nation. Although nearly 1,000 prisoners were released outright from Florida prisons because they could not be successfully re-tried, Gideon was not so fortunate. Gideon would be tried again, perhaps out of spite. But this time, he would have a lawyer at his side, from the newly minted Florida public defender’s office. Gideon’s re-trial was assigned to the same judge who had two years earlier denied counsel. The prosecution called an eyewitness — a man named Henry Cook — who had testified against Gideon at the first trial. Cooks’ testimony that he had seen Gideon in an alley near the pool hall at the time of the burglary had gone unchallenged at Gideon’s earlier trial. At the second trial, Gideon’s defender not only proved that Cook had lied about being convicted of a felony and was inebriated at the time, but also that Cook may have committed the burglary and blamed Gideon to save himself. Gideon’s public defender, Fred Turner, had spent three full days preparing the case for trial. Turner coincidentally had previously represented Cook for robbing a man outside the very pool room Gideon was accused of burglarizing, and was familiar with his background. He even visited Cook’s mother, picking pears with her to find out what recent mischief her son had been involved in. Turner brought out these facts and many others that had gone unnoticed at Gideon’s first trial. One hour and five minutes after the jury left the courtroom to deliberate, they returned with their verdict. The jurors filed in and the clerk read the verdict: “Not guilty.” Gideon was finally freed after spending more than two years in prison. Forty years have passed since Gideon’s case was decided. Although indigent defense programs now exist in every state and county, Gideon’s promise of equal justice is yet to be fulfilled. In Texas, a defense attorney in one capital case was paid $12 an hour. After his client was convicted and sentenced to death, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom came in as pro bono counsel on appeal and uncovered evidence of innocence that resulted in the client’s release. In Dodge County, Ga., defenders who are paid $50 per case to represent indigents engage in assembly-line justice — the practice of lining up defendants and pleading them guilty after speaking with them for just a few minutes. A federal appellate court recently held that Cook County, Nev., could be held liable for its public defender’s policy of assigning its least experienced deputies to murder cases due to lack of resources. In the San Francisco public defender’s office, 80 lawyers have the Herculean task of representing about 20,000 people each year. Our defenders currently handle caseloads of up to 100 felonies at any given time and misdemeanor and juvenile caseloads of 150-250 cases. This year, for the first time in the office’s 82-year history, our office hopes to establish caseload standards, which will set reasonable limits on the number of cases public defenders are assigned. Only by controlling our caseloads can we insure that clients receive proper representation and that attorneys have sufficient time to prepare their cases for trial. We must also have adequate support staff to do our jobs. Our current staff of 14 investigators, 20 clerks and 1 paralegal pales in comparison to the resources available to most lawyers in private firms. As we embark on a new era of social justice, we must never forget that the right to counsel is a sacred one that must be supported and respected at all costs. Considering recent assaults on the right to counsel, including the detention of suspected “enemy combatants” without counsel under the USA Patriot Act, and the terrorism prosecution of New York lawyer Lynne Stewart based on secretly taped attorney-client conversations, it is even more important that we celebrate Gideon and its legacy. In a letter to his appellate lawyer Abe Fortas, who would later be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Gideon wrote, “I believe that each era finds [an] improvement in law each year which brings something new for the benefit of mankind.” These words appear on Gideon’s headstone, at his final resting place in Hannibal, Miss., and help us remember a man whose persistence and determination changed justice in America forever. Jeff Adachi is the elected Public Defender of San Francisco.

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