Access to legal representation is a basic right of Americans accused of crimes, but that wasn't always true. It took a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court to change the legal landscape.
Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the decision in Gideon vs. Wainwright, a case that began in Bay County and led to establishment of the public defender system.
"People forget that for years and years people were prosecuted, convicted, sent to prison, executed... and never had the right to talk to a lawyer," said Walter Smith, a Panama City attorney who spent 30 years as a public defender in the 14th Judicial Circuit.
Clarence Earl Gideon was a 50 year old drifter from Hannibal, Missouri accused of stealing coins, beer and soft drinks from the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Millville in 1961. Judge Robert McCrary refused Gideon's request for a court appointed attorney, a right only granted to defendants accused of capital crimes.
"If you had special circumstances you could convince a judge that you needed a lawyer," said Smith. "He could appoint you one but you had no right to an attorney."
At his trial, Gideon defended himself but was convicted by a Bay County jury and sentenced to five years in state prison. In his cell at Raiford, Gideon drafted a handwritten letter to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that he was unfairly convicted because he had no lawyer.
On March 18, 1963, the court unanimously agreed and ordered a new trial. Panama City attorney Fred Turner defended Gideon at the retrial and won an acquittal. "When he returned for trial he had a skilled local trial attorney who argued his case," said Smith. "So that case itself exemplifies the importance of the right to counsel."
Today, a marker on the grounds of the courthouse commemorates the role Bay County played in the landmark case. A block away, the public defender's office handles about 20,000 cases a year for defendants who cannot afford legal representation.
Following his acquittal, Clarence Gideon worked a series of odd jobs and died in 1972. The case was immortalized in Gideon's Trumpet, a 1965 book by Anthony Lewis. Acclaimed actor Henry Fonda portrayed Gideon in a TV movie of the same name in 1980.
Fred Turner continued to practice law in Panama City and served as a Circuit Judge from 1979 until his retirement in 1991. He died in 2003 at the age of 81.