Gideon v. Wainwright - case providing defendants an attorney - turns 50

US Supreme Court building, Washington DC
US Supreme Court building, Washington DC
AP Photo

(CBS News) Monday marks the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright. The landmark case, guaranteeing the right to counsel in criminal cases, forever changed America's criminal justice system.

In June 1961, Clarence Gideon was arrested for allegedly stealing from a pool hall. He couldn't afford an attorney, and none was provided for him. Under Florida law, counsel was only provided in capital cases. Gideon was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. He claimed, in a handwritten letter to the U.S. Supreme Court, that the conviction was unconstitutional. The highest court agreed to hear the case.

"On the last day of the term of court, which I think was the 25th of June, 1962, they appointed me an attorney, Mr. Abe Fortress," Gideon said in an interview.

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His lawyer was actually Abe Fortas, who at the time was a Washington power player and later a Supreme Court justice.

"I felt that the time had arrived when the court, with a proper case before it, would lay down the general rule applicable to all felony cases in the state courts that every man, the rich, the poor and the poor as well as the rich, was entitled to the benefit of counsel when he was defending himself," Fortas said.

On March 18, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Constitution requires states to provide attorneys to defendants who can't afford them.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg called the Gideon case "a great milestone" and said that "it solved a basic problem."

Following the decision, Gideon was given a new trial with an appointed attorney. He was acquitted of the charges.

Bruce Jacob, an assistant attorney general for Florida, argued against Gideon in the Supreme Court case.

"Our system hasn't performed as well as it should in fulfilling the promise of Gideon," said Jacob. "We are better off today than we were back in 1963, 62, but certainly the court legislatures have not gone as far as they should in implementing the provisions of the Gideon ruling."

Watch the full report in the player above