The Right to Counsel in a Criminal Case – Gideon at 50

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GideonA client of mine recently told me that “poor people do not fall through the cracks, they are pushed through the cracks.” Looking back on the cases that I have handled and my own personal experiences, I could not agree more. Our criminal system is broken and we are only making it worse.

50 years ago, one of the most important Supreme Court decisions was released – Gideon. In that case, the court concluded that indigent individuals had the right to counsel in serious criminal cases. The ruling fundamentally changed the way criminal defense was done and created the public defender system. The intent was to make the process fair, and like most things on paper, it seemed fair at the time. But as time goes on, it seems that fairness has gone as well.

The problem with criminal defense today rests not with the ability to find an attorney, like it did at the time of Gideon, but with prosecutors who are willing to cross the line to get a conviction. This can include hiding exculpatory facts or letting uniformed police officers lie to juries in criminal trials. There is an interesting article on this topic in the New York Times called Gideon’s Muted Trumpet that discusses the mindset of a prosecutor.

In the U.S., there is a burden of proof that the prosecutor must meet. The burden is explained to juries like this: the defendant is presumed to be innocent and the prosecutor has the burden to prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The problem with this burden is the way our Legislatures and local governments have empowered prosecutors to meet this burden. In reality, the burden is met like this: give the police every resource available and train them not to look for any facts that tend to prove the person’s innocence. Then, with virtually infinite guilt proving resources, make the police officer’s ability to advance in their jobs and the prosecutor’s ability to advance in his job dependent on getting convictions. And while the prosecutors seek their promotions/convictions, the Legislature will get tough on crime by writing stricter laws and by hiring more police officers. With more police officers with nothing to do, we get trumped up charges because of new more stringent laws and officers who are willing to lie on the stand to get the conviction/promotion.

The end result is that the defendant is left with no evidence except his own testimony against a mountain of liars in suits.

When we fail to provide adequate resources for people in need, what do we expect? The problem is not that poor people are criminals, the problem is that we have stripped our country of its most basic resources and we have deprived our country of the humanity and dignity that we have previously taken for granted. Until we take it upon ourselves to help all people, we need to understand that the outcome of providing people with no resources and hard punishments is a poor society living in chains.

The information in this post is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or as the creation of an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice, please contact an Attorney.

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Nathaniel has worked in criminal law on both sides of the aisle spending time working for the prosecution as well as the defense. Most recently Nathaniel has represented individuals in violent felonies and drug cases. Prior to this work, Nathaniel handled DWIs, Domestic Violence Cases, Property Crimes, and White Collar Crimes. On the prosecutorial side, Nathaniel has most notably worked in Bosnia helping to prosecute individuals who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Bosnian War from 1993-1995. In particular, Nathaniel helped in the prosecution of military leaders who arranged for the organized murders and rapes of innocent civilians in various towns in Bosnia. Nathaniel is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Northwestern University, and Phillips Exeter Academy. Google Profile: Nathaniel Baca