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Man Who Changed Justice System Called 'No-Good Punk' : 'Hero' Is Without Honor in Hometown

February 24, 1985|JANICE KALMAR | United Press International

HANNIBAL, Mo. — A hero is supposed to live a life of truth, honor and decency. Clarence Earl Gideon didn't, but he's still a hero of sorts.

He was a no-account punk. A nickel-and-dime thief. A useless human being.

But he was also the man who in 1963 penciled a note from his prison cell to the U.S. Supreme Court asking why he had to go to prison just because he could not afford a lawyer to defend him at his trial.

Landmark Ruling

The Supreme Court answered Gideon with a landmark ruling that forever changed the face of American justice.

But there are no statues commemorating Gideon in his hometown.

"Nor will there be," Hannibal Mayor John Lyng said.

"Our community takes some pride in the fact that his case represents something in Hannibal we value very much--the right to stand up for something. But it's very difficult to make Clarence Gideon into a hero.

"There was one thing that he did to make him into the hero . . . but that was only one part of his biography. The remaining parts are not as flattering."

Bill Schneider, an 87-year-old former mayor, police chief and sheriff, is more blunt: "Around here people just figure him as a no-good punk."

String of Convictions

Gideon, who was born in 1910, had his first run-in with the law in Hannibal as a teen-ager. By the time he was 51, he had a string of convictions for burglaries and minor crimes. He had been in and out of prison four times.

June, 1961, found Gideon being held in the Panama City, Fla., jail for breaking into a pool hall and stealing beer and wine and breaking into the cigarette machine and jukebox.

At his trial, he asked the judge to appoint a lawyer for him, citing a state law that allowed courts to appoint counsel for persons charged with serious offenses. The judge denied the request, and Gideon went to prison.

From his cell, Gideon sent a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court. He complained that even the poor needed adequate representation, a notion that the high court had rejected 20 years earlier.

Sentence Overturned

On March 18, 1963, Gideon got his response. The court overturned his sentence, ruling that the poor were entitled to legal counsel. Two years later, with lawyer Abe Fortas at his side, Gideon was retried for the pool hall break-in and was acquitted.

Lawyers say that Gideon's case was directly responsible for the public defender system in America's courts today. His legal struggle was the subject of a best-selling book, "Gideon's Trumpet," by New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis.

But, when Gideon died in Florida in 1972, after more jail terms for more crimes, his body was quietly returned to Hannibal. Only a small obituary appeared in the paper, and he was buried in an unmarked grave.

The folks in Hannibal promptly forgot him--only to have his memory revived by the American Civil Liberties Union, which placed a marker on his grave.

To Sister, a Petty Thief

"I never could view what he did as such a great, wonderful thing," Gideon's half-sister, Frances Ogden, says. "He was just a petty thief, as far as I'm concerned."

Walter Stillwell, 82, who served as Marion County prosecutor from 1932 to 1942, said, "I don't think he's a hero."

Stillwell doubts that Gideon even had the mental ability to draft the letter to the Supreme Court.

"I believe the whole thing was prepared by what we term a jail-house lawyer and Gideon in turn copied it in his own handwriting," Stillwell said. "And I certainly don't think it's any basis for praising Gideon. I think he was the instrument in which a principle of law was established.

"Locally, I think he'll just be remembered as a wayward young man who never found his place in society."

Holdup Victim

James Alexander, 77, has different memories--memories of Gideon's pointing a shotgun in his face in 1928. Alexander was working at a confectionery, and he and his boss handed over the day's profits. Gideon was arrested the next day.

"He was a punk at everything he tried to do," said Alexander, who keeps a copy of "Gideon's Trumpet" on his coffee table. "The one thing the guy ever did that was worthwhile was writing (to the Supreme Court) and establishing this law."

But lawyer Rory Ellinger has a kinder view.

"I think he's a symbol of the little man who can make a big difference," Ellinger said. "I guess personally he wasn't a very noteworthy person, but I think his case demonstrates that in America even the most disliked person and the least important can have an effect."

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