Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Clarence Gideon Story

The Trial

On August 4, two months after the break-in, Gideon faced trial for breaking and entering with the intent to commit larceny. Gideon was forced to represent himself. His adversary was Assistant State Attorney William Harris.

Logo of Florida State Attorney General's office
Logo of Florida State Attorney General's office

Judge McCrary presided, and a jury of six men was seated to decide Gideon's fate. Prosecutor Harris called just two witnesses: the owner and the eyewitness.

Ira Strickland testified that he had locked up his business at midnight on June 2 and returned eight hours later to find Deputy Pitts outside his burgled pool hall. He confirmed that coins, soda and booze were missing.

Henry Cook repeated the same account he had given detectives on the morning of the break-in: He saw Gideon inside the poolroom and watched him walk out with a bottle of wine, make a call at a pay phone, then leave in a cab.

Bay County Courthouse
Bay County Courthouse

Gideon did his best as a layman lawyer. He made opening statements and closing arguments, cross-examined Cook and called seven defense witnesses.

But his cross-examination of Cook was emblematic of his deficiencies. Most of the exchanges between the two men were dead ends like this one:

Gideon: "Do you know positively that I was carrying a pint of wine?"

Cook: "Yes, I know you was."

Gideon: "How do you know that?"

Cook: "Because I seen it in your hand."

Gideon's witnesses included Deputy Pitts, the cab driver who took him to Panama City, and a woman who was a regular customer of the pool hall, who testified to Gideon's character.

The trial transcript did not include a record of opening and closing statements. But the record noted that Gideon spoke for 11 minutes in his summation, two minutes longer than the prosecutor.

He likely argued that Cook and some pals had broken in. When the cop happened by just after the burglary, Cook chose Gideon as a convenient patsy because he had seen him call a taxi that morning from his customary corner pay phone for a ride to Panama City for an eye-opener.

His argument did not sway the jurors, who convicted Gideon. On August 27, three days before Gideon's 52nd birthday, Judge McCrary handed down the maximum sentence: five years in prison.

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