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The High Cost of Justice


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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 Evaluation 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 fragile case.

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.