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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Does a Lawyer Really Make a Difference In a Trial?

Background

When Clarence Earl Gideon was tried for breaking and entering, he told the judge he was too poor to afford a lawyer and asked the judge to appoint one for him. The judge denied Gideon's request, saying that Gideon's case was not a capital offense. (A capital offense is one that holds the possibility of a death sentence.) The judge cited Betts v. Brady in explaining that in noncapital cases, the accused is entitled to a lawyer only if "special circumstances" exist. Examples of "special circumstances" include complex charges and illiteracy or incompetence on the part of the accused. Gideon did not fit into any of these categories, so he represented himself at trial.

Part I

Your teacher will play a clip from the movie, Gideon's Trumpet. As you watch the clip, take notes on how Gideon defends himself.

  • Note to Teacher: Play the entire courtroom scene from beginning to end. This clip starts with the text "August 4, 1961" at approximately 6:24 into the movie and runs for approximately 13 minutes, until 19:28, when Gideon's lawyer leaves the courtroom.
Questions for Class Discussion
  1. How well did Gideon defend himself? 
  2. What could a lawyer have done differently? Would that have changed the outcome of the case? 
  3. Can the average person, who like Gideon, is not illiterate or incompetent, do an adequate job of defending himself or herself at trial? Why or why not? 

Part II

Your teacher will now play another clip from the same movie. As you watch the clip, take note of the differences between this trial and the earlier one.

  • Note to Teacher: Play the final courtroom scene, which begins with Gideon and his lawyer walking up the steps to the courtroom. It starts at approximately 1:23:00 into the movie and runs for approximately 18 minutes, until 1:41:23, when Gideon leaves the courtroom.
Questions to Consider
  1. What did Gideon's lawyer do that was different from what Gideon had done? How did his knowledge of courtroom procedure, his investigative tactics, and his ability to question witnesses affect the outcome of the trial? 
  2. In the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court of the United States determined that even in noncapital criminal cases, the accused is entitled to a lawyer. Based on the clip you have seen and what you already know, do you think this was an appropriate decision?

< Gideon v. Wainwright