Fifty years ago, Clarence Earl Gideon, a Panama City drifter, sat in his jail cell, took a pencil to paper and wrote a five-page petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.
He asked the justices to consider his complaint that a Bay County judge had violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel in sentencing him to five years in prison for allegedly stealing change and beer from a local tavern. With no money for a lawyer, Gideon had represented himself at trial and lost.
The Warren Court took Gideon’s case and decided in his favor. The decision said accused felons who cannot afford an attorney have a right to one provided by the state. And so was born the Public Defender System. With a lawyer, Gideon was acquitted in his second trial. He had served two years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
In the years since, the controversy has centered on studies that show defendants with private lawyers receive better representation than defendants with public defenders, mostly because the system is overburdened and underfunded.
Doesn’t everyone agree that if you are charged with a crime, you should have the right to the very best lawyer you can afford? Wouldn’t you want that for your father, brother, sister or friend? What about for yourself?
So, why all the fuss at the news that George Zimmerman has raised $204,000 through a website he set up for his legal defense? Choosing to make a donation to Zimmerman’s defense fund is also protected by the Constitution. Thousands have chosen to do so.
While Zimmerman won’t be spending taxpayer money for a public defender, he has hired criminal defense attorney Mark O’Mara to represent him, including in the court of public opinion.
When O’Mara revealed the balance of the account in court, there was public outrage and disgust - anger that Zimmerman did not disclose the existence of the account in his bond hearing and that he had somehow taken advantage of the situation.
Before the revelation, O’Mara, who charges $400 an hour, had offered to represent Zimmerman pro bono, a rarity in a case that could exceed $1 million. However, in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, he suggested his hourly fee may still hold.
Zimmerman, whose wife testified was penniless, is not the first high-profile defendant to land a high-priced attorney. Criminal defense lawyers seek these cases because they bring fame and notoriety -- free advertising in a field where most clients have no money. Perhaps that’s why two other Orlando attorneys stepped into the media spotlight early to say they represented Zimmerman, though he had not hired them.
Zimmerman is lucky to have a good lawyer. Figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show about 82 percent of felony defendants can’t afford a private attorney. Not surprisingly, black men are more likely than any other group to need a free lawyer.
No matter what you believe happened on that night in February between Zimmerman and Miami teenager Trayvon Martin, our belief in the fairness of the criminal justice system depends on balanced scales of justice.
As Americans, we need to stand up for a system that believes in "innocent until proven guilty." We should be strong advocates for the best criminal defense lawyers to represent the accused to ensure a fair and just verdict is attained. Anything else is inadequate.
Formerly a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and Orlando Sentinel, Susan Clary is a freelance writer in Orlando. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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