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Kane County public defenders celebrate anniversary of landmark decision

ST. CHARLES –  Clarence Earl Gideon was a guy who often was in trouble, starting as a teen with a stint in juvenile hall at 16. On June 3, 1961, he was charged with burglary of the Bay Harbor Pool Hall in Panama City, Fla., and theft of money from its vending machines.

Too poor to afford a lawyer, he asked the trial judge to appoint one. The judge didn’t. Gideon defended himself, was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. From his cell, Gideon wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court in pencil, explaining his lack of counsel meant he did not get a fair trial.

“I was without friends, and I was without an attorney,” Gideon wrote in his Oct. 11, 1961, letter to the high court. “I did not have a fair trial.”

Monday is the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the court unanimously ruled that those who cannot afford an attorney should have one appointed to them. The Kane County Public Defenders Office celebrated this anniversary Friday with a skit, a presentation of the history of public defenders and cake after hours at the branch court in St. Charles.

Although the right to an attorney was guaranteed in the Sixth Amendment in 1789, there was no true mechanism to pay for it until Gideon.

“The popularity of the Gideon opinion was astounding,” said Kelli Childress, who heads the Kane County Public Defenders Office. “Twenty-two states – including Illinois – submitted amicus briefs on behalf of Mr. Gideon.”

After the ruling, 2,000 people in Florida prisons were released. Only 250 were convicted upon retrial – but Gideon –  this time represented by an attorney –  was acquitted, she said. Gideon died Jan. 18, 1972, still a poor man. Childress said he was buried in an unmarked grave, but later the American Civil Liberties Union gave his grave with a headstone stating, “Each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.”

In celebrating the anniversary of the Gideon decision, Childress talked about what the Kane County Public Defenders Office does.

“We handle a wide variety of cases … in juvenile court, abuse and neglect court, traffic court, misdemeanor court – between [driving under the influence] and domestic violence court and seven separate felony courtrooms,” Childress said. “And all the specialty courts, including adult drug court, juvenile drug court, treatment alternative and mental health court.”

Kane County’s 35 public defenders closed 7,199 cases in 2012, almost 250 cases per attorney, she said.

“We have all heard this in the past, ‘Why do you represent bad guys?’ ” Childress said. “To some with poor vision, we represent bad guys. To others, we represent sons, daughters and friends. We represent those whom society rejects.”

Childress said a video of the skit and presentation will be available on YouTube.

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