March 01, 2013

Section of Litigation Commemorates the 50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright

On January 18, 2013, the Project co-sponsored an event with the Section of Litigation commemorating the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court decision that held that indigent defendants have a right to counsel in felony criminal cases. The program was held in connection with the Section of Litigation’s Winter Leadership Meeting. While the event celebrated the importance of the right to counsel and its impact on the American criminal justice system, it also highlighted the challenges the legal community still faces in fulfilling Gideon's promise of effective legal representation for all.

Moderated by Dean JoAnne Epps of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, the event featured a panel of speakers that discussed Gideon's impact on the criminal justice system over the past 50 years. Professor Bruce Jacob, former Florida Assistant Attorney General, discussed the experience of arguing for the State of Florida in Gideon and how Florida's criminal justice system changed after the decision. Carlos Martinez, Public Defender for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida, spoke about the challenges that overburdened and underfinanced public defender offices often face and described their efforts to provide quality representation.

Although unable to attend in person, Anthony Lewis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gideon’s Trumpet, reflected on the ongoing impact of Gideon in special videotaped remarks. Mr. Lewis also urged lawyers to commit themselves to pro bono work. Mr. Lewis sadly passed away at the end of March at the age of 85.

The third panelist was, Anthony Graves, an exonerated Texas death row prisoner. He told the compelling story of his remarkable journey from a wrongful conviction to freedom. Mr. Graves described the ineffectiveness of his defense counsel, a court-appointed attorney who had never before tried a capital case, at his trial more than 40 years after the Gideon decision. Mr. Graves stressed the importance of prosecutors and defenders working collaboratively to ensure justice and how this reduces the number of wrongful convictions, especially in cases like his own.

Mr. Graves wrote countless letters asking for legal assistance with little success until he finally reached Nicole Casarez, a journalism professor and attorney, in 2002. Ms. Casarez's journalism class began working with the Innocence Project, and, after her class began investigating Mr. Graves' case, Ms. Casarez volunteered to leave her professorship to represent Mr. Graves full time. In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned Mr. Graves' conviction, and the State of Texas dropped all charges against Mr. Graves four years later, allowing him to go free after 18 years in prison. Ms. Casarez and Mr. Graves were featured speakers at the Project's 25th Anniversary & Volunteer Recognition Event.

Mr. Graves described the emotions he felt after he was told of his impending release. "It was the first time I could tell my mom—in over 18 years—'I'm coming home,'" said Mr. Graves. He concluded his remarks by imploring attorneys to fulfill the promise of Gideon by providing legal representation to indigent defendants. He emphasized both the obligation lawyers have to provide quality counsel for the defendants who need it most, as well as the rewards of representing those clients.

"If you're attorneys and if you're in a position that you can make a difference in somebody's life," Mr. Graves urged, "there is no greater feeling than you having something to do with a man regaining his freedom."