Clarence Gideon Story
A Florida Burglary
A Bay County, Fla., lawman was waiting when Ira Strickland Jr. arrived to open his pool hall/beer joint at 8 a.m. on June 3, 1961.
Deputy Deull Pitts Jr. informed the proprietor that his business had been violated overnight. A burglar broke a window to get inside, then jimmied the coin boxes to the cigarette machine and jukebox.
The burglary would not have come as a surprise to Strickland. His business was located in Bay Harbor, a gritty crossroads near a paper mill at the seedy outskirts of Panama City, in the Florida panhandle.
Bay Harbor attracted lowlifes like moths to an illuminated beer sign, and these lost souls made up Strickland's shabby clientele of bums and boozers.
Strickland made a quick accounting and determined that roughly $65 in change, 12 beers, 12 Cokes and four fifths of cheap wine were missing. The booty amounted to maybe $100.
Deputy Pitts told Strickland that an eyewitness, Henry Cook, a 22-year-old greaser who lived nearby, had provided a detailed account.
A Panama City cop had cruised past the pool hall at 6 a.m. and noticed the front door open. The cop saw Cook standing nearby. Cook explained that he was outside the business at 5:30 a.m. after returning from a night of carousing in Apalachicola, 50 miles down the coast.
Cook said he noticed movement inside the building and stepped back to watch furtively through the window. He said he saw a man walk out carrying a bottle of wine. The man's trouser pockets bulged with coins. Cook said the man went to a nearby pay phone, dialed and spoke, then got in a cab when it arrived a short time later.
The eyewitness told the cop he recognized the burglar: Clarence Earl Gideon, a gaunt, twitchy boozer who ran a poker game at the pool hall. Gideon lived nearby at the Bay Harbor Hotel, a $6-a-week flop.
Within a couple of hours police tracked Gideon to a tavern in downtown Panama City, where he was drinking on the barfly morning shift. His trousers were hanging low, weighted by exactly $25.28 in coins.
Cops figured they had their break-in culprit cold. They arrested him.
But from the moment he was accused, Gideon swore he was the wrong man. He said the coins in his pockets were from nickel-ante poker winnings, not from Strickland's machines.
Gideon vowed to fight the charges. Destitute, he asked that a lawyer be appointed to represent him, at taxpayer expense. At age 51, he was no stranger to courtrooms, and he knew enough about criminal law to understand that he was outmatched against a professional prosecutor.
But Judge Robert McCrary Jr. told him, "Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the court can appoint counsel to represent a defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint counsel to defend you in this case."
Gideon countered, "The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel."
The judge's decision and Gideon's insistence of his innocence would help the lowly break-in—one of 949,600 reported in the United States in 1961—make legal history.