More than 50 years ago, Clarence Earl Gideon stood in a Florida courtroom accused of felony burglary and asked the court to appoint an attorney to represent him. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1942 decision in Betts v. Brady, state criminal defendants had no Sixth Amendment right to counsel. States only had to appoint attorneys for indigent defendants if there were special circumstances in a case that required counsel to ensure fundamental fairness. Gideon was not facing the death penalty; he was not illiterate or mentally impaired; and his case was not particularly complex. The Florida courts denied his request for counsel, and he was convicted despite his protestations of innocence.
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