Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Clarence Gideon Story

Jailhouse Lawyer

Gideon certainly was accustomed to life behind bars. He'd served at least four different state prison sentences and had been a guest at more than a few city and county jails.

But Gideon did not go away quietly. He had an indignant streak and a deeply embedded sense of fairness. Gideon had always blamed his failings on something or someone — his stepfather, the Depression, his bouts with tuberculosis, corrupt authorities.

Raiford Prison, Florida
Raiford Prison, Florida

As he sat in prison in Raiford, Fla., Gideon focused his rage on Florida and Judge McCrary.

"A flame still burned in Clarence Earl Gideon," Anthony Lewis wrote in his 1964 book, Gideon's Trumpet. "He had not given up caring about life or freedom; he had not lost his sense of injustice. Right now he had a passionate — some thought almost irrational — feeling of having been wronged by the State of Florida, and he had the determination to try to do something about it."

<em>Gideon's Trumpet</em>
Gideon's Trumpet

Gideon read a book on the history of the American legal system and decided that Judge McCrary had violated his constitutional right to due process of law under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Using a lead pencil, Gideon wrote a series of letters on lined stationery provided by the prison, the top of each page featuring the rules for prisoner correspondence — English only, two letters per week, and so forth.

He wrote first to an FBI office in Florida and next to the state supreme court, but he was denied help.

In January 1962 he mailed a five-page petition to the United States Supreme Court asking the nine justices to consider his complaint. He followed a form he found in legal books, right down to Latin phrases such as "writ of habeas corpus" and "in forma pauperis." He even began his letter with, "Comes now the petitioner ..."

Gideon's Petition, page 1
Gideon's Petition, page 1

The document was rife with misspellings, but nestled in the petition was his fundamental gripe: He asked for a lawyer and didn't get one.


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