Fulfilling Gideon’s promise that the accused deserve a lawyer

Throughout our country’s history, poor people have enjoyed few victories — especially those who stand accused of crimes.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of a rare and important triumph: Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed that anyone accused of a serious crime was entitled to a lawyer, whether or not he or she could afford one.

On Tuesday, city leaders, experts and people affected by a broken system will gather at the 10th annual Public Defender’s Justice Summit to commemorate the anniversary with a day of frank discussions about how to get closer to our goal of equal justice.

The man at the heart of the case, Clarence Earl Gideon, was a semiliterate drifter arrested on suspicion of burglarizing a Florida pool hall. Because he could not afford a lawyer, Gideon was forced to represent himself at trial. He was convicted.

From his jail cell, Gideon scrawled out a petition to the nation’s high court arguing that his rights had been violated.

Incredibly, the justices voted to hear his appeal and ruled unanimously in his favor. He was retried, this time represented by a public defender, and promptly acquitted. In the years that followed, the Gideon decision ignited a right-to-counsel revolution, but failed in its promise to close the yawning gap between justice for the rich and justice for the poor.

Today, 80 percent of criminal defendants are served by public defenders. In San Francisco, 25,000 people rely on the Public Defender’s Office each year. A 2011 Justice Policy Institute study paints a grim national picture of overburdened public defenders and frequent miscarriages of justice. According to the study, 73 percent of county-based public defender’s offices lack the requisite number of attorneys to meet caseloads. Nearly one-quarter of the offices had less than half the necessary attorneys.

Tuesday’s summit, “Gideon at 50: The Road to Equal Justice,” is dedicated to exploring the continuing David vs. Goliath battle, both in San Francisco and the nation. Karen Houppert, our keynote speaker, is a journalist who set out to check the national pulse regarding the right to counsel. Her book, “Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice,” chronicles our failure to fulfill our promise to the poor. Across the country, she found that impossible caseloads and a lack of funding have resulted in wrongful convictions of the innocent.

Nobody knows more about wrongful conviction than Maurice Caldwell, a San Francisco man who spent more than 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Based on the identification of a single eyewitness, a jury convicted Caldwell of killing a man in a botched drug deal in the Alemany housing project. The Northern California Innocence Project later unearthed new evidence in the case, including a statement from another man that he was the real killer.

Caldwell was released in 2011 after a judge ruled his attorney failed to adequately investigate the case. Caldwell will join a panel discussion on poor people’s justice.

Also at the summit will be filmmaker Dawn Porter, whose Sundance award-winning documentary, “Gideon’s Army,” exposes not only the heavy caseloads but also the unsinkable idealism of public defenders in the Deep South.

We hold the summit each year because we believe all of us benefit from equal justice. Together we will explore solutions to the problems that vex our city — from chronic inebriates to mental illness to reforming the bail system. I hope you will join us in our effort to fulfill Gideon’s promise.

The Public Defender’s Justice Summit will be held Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Koret Auditorium in the San Francisco Main Library. This event is free, but registration is required. For more information and to register, visit www.sfpublicdefender.org.

Jeff Adachi is the public defender of San Francisco.

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