Gideon’s Trumpet

Gideon’s Trumpet

Damian Anderson

Columbia College

 Gideon’s Trumpet chronicles the circumstances of an arrest, and appeal that eventually changed the course of the criminal justice system. The film, directed by Robert L. Collins, stares Henry Fonda as Clarence Gideon, poor man of average intellect who is arrested for breaking into a pool room after a witness identifying Gideon as the culprit. Along with the witness’s report, the taxi driver whom transported Gideon stated that Gideon asked the driver not to mention seeing him and there was a large amount of change found on Gideon’s person, which seemed incriminating as there were coins stolen along with the break in.

                               Based on the evidence above, local police made an arrest. At trial Gideon requested an attorney from the judge due to his low funds. The judge responding stated that lawyers/counsel was only appointed in capital cases, and that he would not be appointed counsel, as the case was a capital offense.  Therefore Gideon, a poor man of average intelligence, had to argue his case of innocence against a lawyer whom has both experience and the educational training.

The constitution stated in the Fourteenth Amendment that every citizen “shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (Cornell University Law School). Due to this amendment, citizens are receiving the following:  right to speedy trial, right to public trial, right to counsel among other things (Justia). However, the concept of fairness is debatable and can be different based on each circumstance, as cited in Synder v. Massachusetts (Justica).   Because of this, the courts could argue on whether a defendant without counsel was considered unfair, as in regards to their ability to defend themselves. That said, a case mentioned often in the course of the film was Betts v. Brady ruled that indigent defendants would only be appoint counsel based on special circumstances. These special circumstances could be based on education level, illiteracy, and competency (Landmark Cases). Since Gideon only circumstance was his lack of funds, the court didn’t find a reason to appoint counsel.

During his prison stay Gideon often visited the library researching on constitutional rights, and doing so he reached out to the Supreme Court.  During his trial, Gideon was able to only call one witness and was unprepared and uninformed during his questioning while the prosecution was the opposite.  The 3 steps that Gideon needed to take in order to for his case to be heard by supreme court included: 1) petition Florida Courts Habeas Corpus, 2) Ask Supreme Court Certiorari, and 3)sign an affidavit  stating he was unable to pay $100. During the course of this process in the film, Gideon’s becomes an inspiration to other prisoners; scenes included prisoners asking Gideon could listen to their case.

The film provides insight into how the Supreme Court works and functions. They considered each case sent into them, reviewing the facts and ruling. Here they determine which of the ruling seemed questionable, and then have a meeting in which they discuss further and conduct votes.

Regarding Gideon’s case, their discussion poses several discussions.  One of which included other prisoners whom were tried without counsel. If they would indeed overturn this, they had to consider all the other entire prisoners whom were convicted without having counsel. Would their conviction be overruled and be tried again? That would create massive chaos, as there were quite a number of those in prisoner under those circumstances.

During the course of their meeting it was stated that a simple man should be able to defend himself in a simple case. This is full of problems, as it was briefly touch upon above. A case could be considered simple, based on the facts and evidence of the situation, but to have a simple man of average intelligence defend himself is entirely unfair. Attorneys and lawyer venture off to law school for years perfecting their craft of argument and education of the court system. A person cannot expect a person of average intelligence to compete with such education and training.

The defense in court in all honesty, requires someone of above average intelligence to properly and effectively defend someone. Court proceedings are bound by rules and complex guidelines. For example, during his questioning of the landlord, the prosecution called an objection due to leading questions. Gideon seemed confused and unable to effectively question the landlord. When deciding the jury, he probably didn’t realize he could challenge the members as being bias against him, thus further establishing an unfair trial. Overall, his understanding of the court system was limited which created much confusion for himself, until he began researching aspects of unfair proceedings.

During proceeding with the Supreme Court, Abe Fortas pose question related to identifying with special circumstances. In regards to Betts v. Brady, how does the court determine if an individual falls under special circumstances? Is this it his skin tone, his education level or whether he has a stupid look? Fortas even stated that there were no “special circumstances” concerning other than his poor economic standing in the community.  Next, he argued that defendants should be appointed counsel, when need, from the initial arraignment to the appeal proceedings.

The court then rebutted back with concerning reason not to overturn or modify Betts v. Brady: 1) the is no historical basis for the states appointing counsel, and 2) Betts v. Brady provides clear standards for the right to counsel in the form of special circumstances. Following that, 2 key consequences we were mentioned if Betts v. Brady would be overturned: 1) the demanding of lawyer for every single case would create a high strain on citizens as well as huge case loads, and 2 over 5000 prisoners prior to this had no counsel for their case. The court did make a point to ensure that the overturning of Betts v. Brady would be retroactive to prevent a massive caseload on the court system, however it was mentioned that some prisoner would go free.

The Supreme Court is task with hearing cases that can alter the course of court proceeding all together. Through precedents the court and other can argue for a new or modified standard to a ruling. This film was just an example of the changes that can occur due to Supreme Court. Because of the Supreme Courts, suspects have Miranda rights (Miranda v. Arizona), defends have right to counsel (Gideon v. Gainwright), and assurance of due process (Sydney v. Massachusetts) . Though the case load seems rather large for the court, it seems to an effective system by approaching each case one at a time, giving each case their proper and undivided attention.

When pertaining to right, each defendant in the American court system should be allowed the right to counsel. However, if the defendant has the financial means to afford an attorney. Reason being, that it puts less of a strain on community by using government funds (Nolo). When appointing does happened by the courts, lawyers can obtain a massive caseload which may negatively effective their performance; they may as efficient as they have too many cases to handle properly. But even if those negative aspects, the Supreme Court was correct and wise when ruling that ever defendant is entitled to counsel. It is included in the constitutional amendments that defendants have the right to a fair trial, and active participation doesn’t equal fair trial. As stated many times above, defendants of average intelligence are not  adequately equipped to handle court proceeding; as they can appear complex and confusing to the defendant. In appointing attorneys to each defendant we are ensuring not only the constitution, but eliminated the chance of a wrongful conviction. Well, or at least a reduced chance.

Works Cited:

Cornell University Law School. (n.d).US Consitution: 14th Amendment. Legal Information Institute. Web. Retrieved from:

Houseman, John & Collins, Robert L. (1980). Gideon’s Trumpet. United States. Worldvision.

Justia. (n.d.) Fair Trial. Justia US Law. Web. Retrieved from:

Landmark Cases. (n.d). Summary of the Decision. Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court. Web. Retrieved from:

Nolo. (n.d.) Court Appointed Attorneys in Criminal Cases. NOLO. Web Retrieved from:




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