Defending the Right to Counsel in the United States: 50 Years after Gideon v. Wainwright

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N-Map and our partner, The Constitution Project, just finished producing, Defending Gideon, a short documentary narrated by Martin Sheen.  The film profiles personal stories that illuminate one of the most significant human rights problems in the United States today:  lack of access to lawyers for poor criminal defendants – and, as a result, the denial of a fair trial to thousands of Americans.  Segments of the film were screened on Thursday at the Department of Justice, introduced by Attorney General Eric Holder – and the full film will screen tonight at the DOJ, and on Tuesday in Congress presented by Congressman Scott.

50 years ago, Justice Hugo Black, speaking for a unanimous Supreme Court, wrote: “Reason and reflection require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him.” The landmark case had a transformative effect on the country’s many criminal justice systems –for the first time, states were constitutionally required to provide lawyers to every defendant in a felony case who could not afford an one.

Unfortunately, 50 years later, it has become clear that the country has not lived up to the great promise of the Gideon case. Although there are many dedicated, talented, and tireless defense lawyers working heroically in very challenging conditions, the overall system has failed profoundly to provide adequate counsel for many defendants. This has resulted in an explosion of guilty pleas and, in the worst case, wrongful convictions.

The Constitution Project and its National Rights to Counsel Committee are fighting to change this. Their thoughtful analysis of ethe issues facing indigent defense systems and a call for reform can be found in this report: Justice Denied.

The Constitution Project asked N-Map to produce a documentary about Gideon and the right to counsel to be released on the 50th Anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision. For the last few months, we have been working with them to tell the stories of the eminent lawyers and journalists involved with the case, as well as many other judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and defendants for whom the issue of adequate counsel is of paramount importance.

Start taking action now. Watch the video. Share it with your networks. Follow the conversation at #defendinggideon. Help us realize the great promise of Gideon and ensure the right to a fair trial for all Americans.

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