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Gideon’s promise still unfulfilled

“Make me wanna holler, way they do my life.” — Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues”

Karen Houppert has written a book of nightmares.

Houppert, a veteran reporter for, among others, The Washington Post and The New York Times, is the author of “Chasing Gideon: the Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice,” which comes out this week coincident with the anniversary of a legal milestone. It was 50 years ago Monday that the case of Gideon v. Wainwright was decided.

Clarence Earl Gideon, 51, was arrested in Panama City, Fla., in 1961 for burglary. When his case came to trial, Gideon, who was indigent, asked the court to provide him an attorney. The court refused and Gideon, a four-time loser and eighth-grade dropout, had to represent himself. He was found guilty and given five years.

But though he was no scholar, Gideon knew something was wrong with this picture. He wrote a letter — in pencil and with a dropout’s creative spelling and grammar — to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case and appointed counsel to represent him. The decision it handed down affirmed the Sixth Amendment promise that every criminal defendant — even an indigent one — shall have “the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

It is a right we take for granted now, part of the boilerplate every TV cop rattles off to every suspect. “If you desire and cannot afford an attorney…” and etcetera. It is hard to imagine that such was not always the case. Perhaps you’re grateful to live in a country where even the humble poor are ensured of quality representation when they stand before the bar of justice.

Except that you don’t. Hence, the nightmare.

It turns out there is a gulf between the 1963 promise and the 2013 reality. It turns out one lawyer can be expected to try 400, 500, 600 cases a year. It turns out public defenders are so underfunded and overwhelmed it is not uncommon for a defendant to meet his attorney for the first time in court. It turns out the situation is so dire that in at least one jurisdiction a judge pressed tax attorneys and property lawyers into service in criminal court. It turns out poor people’s justice is to justice as monkey business is to business.

Ask Clarence Jones, who spent over a year in prison just waiting for an attorney — and was still there as the book went to press — on a charge of burglary.

Ask Carol Dee Huneke, a novice lawyer with no experience in criminal law who was hired as a public defender on a Thursday and assigned a case that began Monday. She had never even seen a trial before.

And ask Greg Bright, who spent 27 years in prison on a murder charge he might have easily beaten, writes Houppert, had his court-appointed attorney done even minimal investigation on his behalf. As a later attorney discovered, the single witness the state’s case hinged upon was a mentally-ill heroin addict with a history of hallucinations who physically could not have seen what she claimed she did.

Twenty-seven years. “Make me wanna holler,” indeed.

What is reflected here is not simply incompetence but disdain, contempt for the rights, lives and humanity of the less fortunate. And perhaps your instinct is to look away, secure in the naive delusion that no one gets arrested unless they’ve “done something.” Truth is, it happens every day.

Taken alongside the failed War on Drugs that has devastated African America, this treatment of indigent defendants depicts a “justice” system that too often produces the exact opposite of what its name suggests, particularly for its most vulnerable constituents. That’s a sad state of affairs 50 years after what was once considered a milestone triumph for the poor.

And it should — we should — send a clear and unambiguous message to lawmakers. The system is broken. Fix it.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

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