Your Right as a Criminal Defendant

You have the right as a criminal defendant to court-appointed counsel in criminal cases where jail is a possible punishment. This wasn’t always the case, and it took some time for the US Supreme Court to embrace the idea that defendants have a right to counsel. Johnson v. Zerbst 1938 is the case where the US Supreme Court found that every defendant in federal court has a right to appointed counsel if they are indigent.

A few years earlier, in the famous “Scottsboro” case, the US Supreme Court found that every defendant who is charged in a capital case (one where the punishment includes death or life in prison) has a right to appointed counsel. This case was Powell v State of Ala., 287 U.S. 45 (1932).

Gideon v. Wainwright

It took the US Supreme Court until 1963 to find that all defendants facing jail or prison in prosecutions had a right to counsel, and to have that lawyer paid by the state if the defendant was indigent. This case was Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).

Mr. Gideon was charged with breaking into a pool hall. At an arraignment before the trial

Gideon wrote his appeal in pencil on a tablet

court judge, Gideon asked for appointed counsel. The judge refused. Gideon wrote an appeal of his conviction (in pencil on a tablet and yes, I have seen it) to the US Supreme Court. Twenty-two state attorney generals wrote a brief asking that Gideon’s conviction be overturned. Of course, Gideon’s conviction was overturned. Henry Fonda starred in a great movie about the case (along with Jose Ferrer and John Houseman) called Gideon’s Trumpet. After Gideon was decided, thousands of attorneys were paid to represent criminal defendants.

Right to Counsel Includes the Right to Effective Counsel

Since Gideon, the court has ruled that the right to counsel includes the right to effective counsel. This case was Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).  In Strickland, the court said that anytime an appointed lawyer acts during a case in a manner that undermines the fairness of the case, then the conviction is subject to reversal.

An Example of Ineffective Counsel

A few months ago, the US Supreme Court decided Lafler v. Cooper (2012), where the the justices found that the court-appointed counsel’s inept case analysis and his failure to urge the defendant to plead guilty breached the defendant’s rights to effective assistance of counsel.

What happened? The lawyer told the defendant to go to trial, and to reject a plea bargain. The lawyer told the defendant that he “could not be convicted” but he was. The defendant received a sentence three times what he would have gotten had he taken the deal. The court said that the accused’s lawyer did not perform reasonably, and that his failure to do so caused his client to get decades of prison time that he would not have gotten under the plea bargain.

As a U.S. citizen, it’s your job to know your rights so you can exercise them

Know Your Rights

Remember, your rights are worthless if you don’t know about them and use them.

“Right to Counsel” Tip: Never enter into an interview with the police without your lawyer. Ask specifically for time to get your lawyer.

Shaun Kaufman Law, P.C. wants you to take the best possible Colorado criminal defense attorney into the courtroom that you can. Contact Shaun Kaufman Law, P.C. for a free consultation today.

Shaun Kaufman Law: Compassionate Lawyer, Tough Litigator

Call 24/7, 365 days a year: 303-309-0430

Related Links and Articles:

FindLaw: “The Right to Counsel”

Jurist: “Supreme Court rules ineffective assistance of counsel extends to pleadings”

ACLU: “Good and Bad Lawyers Determine Who Lives and Who Dies”