The High Cost of Justice
Clarence Earl Gideon was a homeless drifter with an eighth grade education. He had been on the streets since age 14
and had a string of nonviolent crimes like burglary and larceny in his
past. Though it may not excuse his decisions, many of Mr. Gideon’s
crimes took place around the time of the Great Depression. This was a
time when desperation sometimes made even the most morally upright people
compromise ideals to quell hunger pangs.
However, Mr. Gideon was not destined to be remembered for his crimes of
survival. Instead, it was the events of August 4, 1961 that would forever
change not only Mr. Gideon’s life, but the legal landscape of the
entire country afterward.
Ira Strickland, Jr. was the owner of a pool hall in Panama City, Florida
called the Bay Harbor Pool Room. Mr. Gideon happened to be one of the
patrons of this seedy hangout on a sweltering and muggy summer night when
Mr. Strickland discovered that $5.00, a few bottles of soda and beer,
and $50.00 in change from the jukebox had all gone missing. When the police
investigated, they questioned Henry Cook, a 22 year old resident of the
local neighborhood. Mr. Cook stated that he had seen Mr. Gideon exit the
establishment with a bottle of wine and pockets full of change, only to
hurriedly hail a cab and leave the scene.
The evidence was substantial enough for the police to arrest Mr. Gideon.
He was charged with breaking and entering with the intent to commit a
misdemeanor, which is a felony in Florida. Mr. Gideon was unable to afford
an attorney, so he asked the Court to provide him with one. The judge
refused Mr. Gideon’s request because an attorney would only be provided
by the Court in the case of poor clients charged with a capital offense.
The circumstances forced Mr. Gideon to stand trial representing himself.
Despite his lack of formal education, he delivered an opening statement,
questioned witnesses, and argued his case before the Court. However, Mr.
Gideon’s presentation of the case fell short. He was convicted and
sentenced to five years in prison.
Mr. Gideon refused to give up on his case. He felt that he had been denied
the constitutional right to counsel, so he filed a petition for writ of
habeas corpus in the Florida Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the Court denied
his petition. Mr. Gideon was running out of options, so he took a longshot
by filing a handwritten petition to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear his case and on
March 18, 1963, it ruled that the Sixth Amendment to the United States
Constitution guaranteed the right to counsel in state courts. Mr. Gideon
would receive a second trial on August 5, 1963. During all of this time,
he remained in jail.
This time, Mr. Gideon would have the benefit of an attorney who established,
through examination of the cab driver, that Mr. Gideon did not leave the
bar with any bottle and certainly did not have $50.00 worth of change
in his pockets. The jury deliberated for one hour before returning a not
guilty verdict. Now that Mr. Gideon had an attorney, justice could be served.
O.J. Simpson Murder Trial
Mr. Gideon fought long and hard for the right to legal representation.
It is perhaps cruelly ironic that his legal battle would have been much
shorter with an attorney in his corner, but perhaps this was also the
essential point his Supreme Court case sought to illustrate. In order
to better understand Mr. Gideon’s need for legal representation,
it is worth considering the facts surrounding Mr. Gideon’s case
in contrast with those of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial.
Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson was a former professional football
player, sportscaster, and actor. He married Nicole Brown on February 2,
1985 and had two children with her. Sadly, their marriage ended in 1992
after considerable marital strife and allegations of spousal abuse to
which Mr. Simpson plead no contest.
Ms. Brown began to see Ronald Goldman around the time following her divorce
from Mr. Simpson. Their relationship was cut tragically short when on
June 13, 1994, their bodies were found outside of Ms. Brown’s condominium.
Both had been brutally stabbed to death. Among the evidence recovered
was a single bloody glove.
Detectives went to Mr. Simpson’s residence to inform him of the murders,
but noticed blood on the white Ford Bronco in his backyard. Detective
Mark Fuhrman and three other detective entered the grounds despite not
having a warrant. Instead, he claimed that exigent circumstances exist
due to the concern that Mr. Simpson may also have been injured or killed.
Upon investigating the grounds, detectives discovered that Mr. Simpson
had left for Chicago the previous night. They interviewed Kato Kaelin,
Mr. Simpson’s house guest, and also discovered yet another glove
that matched the one found at the crime scene. DNA testing confirmed that
the blood on the glove found at Mr. Simpson’s residence had come
from the victims. Police subsequently issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Simpson.
Mr. Simpson gave a letter to his lawyer, Robert Shapiro, to read to the
media. The letter denied his involvement in Ms. Brown’s murder and
sent greetings to various friends and relatives. Although many interpreted
it to be a suicide note, a motorist spotted him on the road driving the
same white Ford Bronco in Orange County, California and reported it to
the police. After a low speed police chase and media circus including
helicopter footage, he turned himself into the authorities. When the police
searched the white Ford Bronco Mr. Simpson used to flee, they found $8,000.00
in cash, a change of clothing, a loaded .357 Magnum, a passport, family
pictures, and a fake goatee and mustache.
On June 20, 1994, Mr. Simpson was arraigned and pleaded not guilty to both
murder charges he was facing. From the very start, Mr. Simpson had sought
out and acquired the absolute best legal representation available at the
time. Among his attorneys were F. Lee Bailey, Robert Kardashian, Robert
Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz, Johnnie Cochran, Gerald Uelmen (then dean of
law at Santa Clara University), Carle E. Douglas, and Shawn Holley. Furthermore,
Mr. Simpson hired two attorneys who specialized in DNA evidence named
Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. It was these two men’s roles to
discredit the prosecution’s DNA evidence. They argued that the police
had perpetrated a fraud and contaminated DNA evidence with sloppy and
unstructured internal procedures.
USA Today estimated that Mr. Simpson’s defense team cost anywhere from $3
million to $6 million. It was the diametric opposite of Mr. Gideon’s circumstances, and
the results only served to prove the old adage that “you get what
you pay for.” The defense team brought to light the soiled record
of racially prejudiced police brutality historically connected the Los
Angeles Police Department. They unearthed the shockingly racist remarks
and behaviors of Detective Mark Furhman, going so far as to assert that
he possibly planted evidence discovered at Mr. Simpson’s residence.
They were also able to ensure that the evidence discovered in Mr. Simpson’s
Bronco was never shown the jury.
The most impressive part about Mr. Simpson’s defense team was the
way that they used a verbal sleight of hand and misdirection to almost
fundamentally change the significance of the proceedings. They condensed
complex legal arguments down to accessible catchphrases when talking about
evidence like the glove, saying, “…if it doesn’t fit,
you must acquit.” Ultimately, they had successfully turned what
started as a murder trial against Mr. Simpson into a trial about the racism
and corruption of the LAPD.
Despite facing a mountain of evidence against him, Mr. Simpson’s
legal team was able to secure a not guilty verdict on October 3, 1995.
The case had started out looking about as straightforward as any prosecutor
could ask for; but in a little more than a year and a half, Mr. Simpson’s
counsel had cast doubt on everything the jury would have otherwise accepted as fact.
Wrapping it up
The deeper implications about evidence created by Mr. Gideon’s and
Mr. Simpson’s trials are perhaps more philosophical in nature, but
impactful in practical and pragmatic ways nonetheless. There is evidence
that a jury may take for granted as credible, but a legal mind is often
able to scale back a jury’s assumptions. An attorney’s job
is often to remind the jury of the ancient proverb,
Non omne quod nitet aurum est – “all that glitters is not gold.”
In Mr. Gideon’s case, the evidence was really rather flimsy. He was a man at a bar who a stranger claimed to have seen leaving with
a bottle and a pocket of change. Who was the stranger? Did he have a reason
to tell the truth? Or better yet, did he have a reason to lie? These are
all questions that a trained attorney would absolutely ask at the start
of a case; but Mr. Gideon was a layman and would not really have known
to consider these matters.
Conversely, Mr. Simpson’s case was dripping with damning evidence
at every turn. Recognizing the challenge of addressing each of these matters, he enlisted
the help of the best counsel available. Just like Mr. Gideon’s attorney,
they effectively unraveled every bit of what seemed like solid evidence,
turning accepted facts into powerful questions.
Both of these cases deal with the ability of the accused to wrench himself
free of whatever the jury might mistakenly believe to be true. Mr. Gideon
was not a man of means and when he was forced to defend himself, his case
fell short, despite the shaky evidence against him. It was not until the
Court appointed him an attorney that he was able to fight off the prosecution’s
On the other hand, Mr. Simpson had enough money to pay for the representation
needed to prove his innocence. He knew he was facing a difficult case,
so he hired a proportionately skilled legal team to help him.
A comparison could be made to better highlight the parallels and differences
between these two cases. Imagine that Mr. Gideon is running on foot in
a bicycle race. He is undeniably at a disadvantage among so many other
prepared athletes. On top of that, they have bikes and Mr. Gideon has
but his own two feet. The odds are stacked against him, but if only someone
would lend him a bike, he could have a fighting chance.
Now imagine Mr. Simpson is also in a competition, but his is more like
a formula one race. Mr. Simpson understands the severity and difficulty
of this race, so he pays top dollar to acquire the fastest and strongest
vehicle he can afford. Again, even though the odds are against him, at
least he has a chance to win.
So too is the legal field. The most unjust thing that could happen at the
outset of a case would be for a defendant to get stuck racing on foot.
The Sixth Amendment may make it so that a defendant would not be left
to his own devices in his defense, but neither does it serve justice to
ride a bicycle in a formula one race. Proper and adequate legal representation
is still, unfortunately, reserved for those who can afford it.