Fifty years ago today, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling mandated that poor defendants accused of serious crimes must be provided with an attorney in order for there to be a fair trial.
The Public Defender’s Office, which today serves that very purpose, will honor the Gideon v. Wainwright ruling of 1963 on Tuesday by examining more ways The City’s indigent population can achieve fairness in the criminal justice system. The office is scheduled to host its 10th Justice Summit at the Main Library’s Koret Auditorium from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The summit will examine the ways in which the justice system still fails the poor, Public Defender Jeff Adachi said. Across the nation, Adachi said, public defenders are saddled with overwhelming caseloads and lack the resources to adequately represent their clients.
Dawn Porter, director of the Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary “Gideon’s Army,” called the public defenders she filmed “unsung heroes.”
“So many are so caring and so skilled, and take to heart the burden that’s on their shoulders,” Porter said.
However, Porter added, funding is lacking for essential defense tools such as training, investigators and DNA testing.
The landmark Supreme Court ruling stemmed from a 1961 breaking-and-entering case against Clarence Earl Gideon in Panama City, Fla.
Gideon said he couldn’t afford an attorney and requested that the court appoint him one. The court rejected that request, saying it was only obligated to appoint counsel to low-income defendants in capital cases.
After defending himself, Gideon was sentenced to five years in state prison. He appealed the decision, however, and the Supreme Court subsequently found that an attorney was essential to a fair trial.
While the free event is fully booked, Adachi said, it will be televised on SFGTV.
“The promise of Gideon still remains unfulfilled,” he said.