Hannibal Courier - Post - Hannibal, MO
  • Right to an appointed attorney

  • Clarence Earl Gideon may just be another name on another head stone to some amongst the many interred at the historic Hannibal cemetery, but it was the proceedings of his alleged criminal trial 50 years ago that lead to criminal suspects having appointed attorneys if they cannot afford one.Despite his crimi...
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  • Beneath the umbrella branches of the catalpa tree at Mount Olivet Cemetery rests a man whose firm cling to innocence changed the process of the United States judicial system forever.
    Clarence Earl Gideon may just be another name on another head stone to some amongst the many interred at the historic Hannibal cemetery, but it was the proceedings of his alleged criminal trial 50 years ago that lead to criminal suspects having appointed attorneys if they cannot afford one.
    He was born Aug. 30, 1910, just four months after another historic Hannibalian, Mark Twain, died of a heart attack in New York. His father, Charles, was a shoemaker and the family lived at 1907 Gordon St. Unfortunately, the day before his third birthday, Gideon lost his father. Charles died Aug. 29, 1913, from tuberculosis of the lungs leaving little Clarence and his mother, Virginia, alone. She eventually remarried, but Clarence’s life would never be the same. Many historical writings claim it was because of the absence of a father figure in his life.
    Gideon’s life through his early teens, remains a mystery to this day. By the time he was 16, according to previous publications, Gideon married for the first time and dropped out of school. Luck didn’t accompany him when it came to the work force. So Gideon turned to crime.
    The drifter
    Robberies and other offenses in Hannibal and areas of Ralls County built Gideon’s criminal record. He did some time, moved around, and by the time he was 50, he settled in Bay Harbor, Fla., a small community located near Panama City. He lived alone, worked odd jobs and mostly kept to himself. Folks around town knew who he was, but there wasn’t much to say about the old man they came to know.
    Then, on June 3, 1961, Gideon’s life came crashing down.
    The Bay Harbor Pool Room, a place Gideon frequented and even helped out at from time to time, was robbed. Money was missing from the cash register and jukebox along with bottles of alcohol. After police questioned many people and worked different leads, Henry Cook, who lived nearby told, authorities he saw Gideon leave in a cab. His pockets stuffed with money and wine bottles.
    It was the only witness the police had to go on, and Cook’s statements seemed to hold truth. Gideon was arrested and put in jail for a month until his trial could be heard.
    Finally the day came. Gideon was very firm about his innocence in the alleged crime. Despite his criminal background working against him, the lonely drifter was positive he could escape conviction for this alleged crime. There was one problem though, Gideon didn’t have a lawyer.
    A man of his stature could in no way pay for counsel and he asked the judge to appoint him an attorney, his request was denied. Gideon, a man with no law education, no experience in the courtroom other than as a crook, had no choice but to represent himself.
    Page 2 of 3 - It was Aug. 4, 1961; singer Bobby Lewis was at the top of the music charts with “Tossin’ and Turnin’”, Roger Maris smashed home run No. 41 off of Baltimore’s Camilo Pascual in pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record and Barack Obama, the man who would become the first black president of the United States, was born. Meanwhile, Gideon was convicted of breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny. He was sentenced to five years in prison, the maximum.
    An appeal toward freedom
    Not long after being sent behind bars, Gideon began to research a way to appeal his sentencing at the prison library. After buffing up his law knowledge, he felt that his rights to the 14th amendment were violated under the due process clause which does not allow governments at the state and local levels to deprive someone’s life, liberty or property unfairly.
    Gideon sent a letter appealing his conviction and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. On March 18, 1963, the court voted 9-0, unanimously, in favor of Gideon. The historic decision now allowed those accused of a crime to be appointed an attorney if they could not afford one.
    “Gideon to some extent was fortunate,” Tom Motley, a former Marion County public defender, said. “The fact that the Supreme Court assigned to his case one of the biggest and most high-profiled lawyers in the country at that time, seems to indicate if it wouldn’t have been Gideon, it would have been somebody else in the next two to three years. Nonetheless, Gideon preserved and got his case to the right place at the right time.”
    Gideon would get a new trial and an attorney. Just like he did before, he proclaimed his innocence and repeatedly said he had nothing to do with the pool hall robbery. But also like before, a jury had to be convinced.
    They were.
    W. Fred Turner was appointed to serve as Gideon’s attorney and destroyed Cook on the stand when he retestifyed at the second trial. When all was said and done, Gideon was acquitted of the charges against him. It was Aug. 5, 1963; the U.S., United Kingdom and USSR all signed a nuclear test ban treaty, the Houston Colt .45’s defeated the San Francisco Giants 6-5 in front of nearly 12,000 fans and Clarence Earl Gideon walked out of court a free man.
    Because of the Supreme Court’s decision on Gideon, thousands of prisoners were freed for unjust convictions.
    “If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court; and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look at the merits in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed,” Robert F. Kennedy said of Gideon. But Gideon did write that letter; the court did look into his case; he was re-tried with the help of competent defense counsel; found not guilty and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit. And the whole course of legal history has been changed.”
    Page 3 of 3 - A proper memorial
    Like his life up until age 16, Gideon’s life after the trial is unknown.
    He died Jan. 18, 1972 and was brought back to Hannibal and buried in an unmarked grave.
    In November of 1984, the American Civil Liberties Union paid to have a headstone placed at his lot.
    Attorneys, political figures and members of the ACLU attended the dedication ceremony. Motley was one of them.
    “It was a very interesting thing,” he said. “What Clarence Gideon should be remembered for is what his case achieved, not necessarily for the guy himself. I think there was a feeling of satisfaction. What the case stood for got some proper recognition with him getting a headstone. I think he should be included in the history (of Hannibal).”
    Engraved on the headstone is a quote; “Each era finda an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.”
    With Gideon’s burial in Hannibal also came a reuniting. Buried just a few feet away, under the same branches of the catalpa tree, is the man he only knew for three short years of life, his father, Charles R. Gideon.
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