Xavier Cortada, “Gideon V. Wainwright,” oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″, 2004

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Chapter 4: Gideon v. Wainwright

The Surprising Power of a Prisoner Petition

Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)


This chapter tells the story of Florida inmate Clarence Gideon, a most unlikely champion for the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to counsel for poor criminal defendants. Before Gideon wrote his famous letter from his jail cell, the Supreme Court had narrowly interpreted the Sixth Amendment leaving the vast majority of poor criminal defendants tried in state courts without access to a lawyer. Clarence Gideon’s hand-written appeal to the Supreme Court sparked a fundamental change in our criminal justice system, resulting in the Court declaring the right to counsel essential to a fair trial and requiring states to provide lawyers to poor criminal defendants. Although the Supreme Court has subsequently limited the application of the holding in Gideon v. Wainwright and the states have fallen woefully short in meeting their obligation to provide lawyers for poor criminal defendants, Clarence Gideon’s contribution remains remarkable and worthy of celebration.


“At first glance, Cortada’s painting cannot be described as uplifting or optimistic. The prison setting is depressing, the colors muted and dark […] But a closer look reveals that the artist has captured some of the most compelling elements of Clarence Gideon’s story and his remarkable contribution to the bundle of procedural protections for criminal defendants.”


Paul Marcus is Haynes Professor of Law at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary. He hold a J.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles. A recognized expert in criminal law, he is the co-author of several national casebooks on criminal law, criminal procedure, and criminal defenses. He was recently president of the American Association of Law Schools.

Mary Sue Backus is Robert Glenn Rapp Foundation Presidential Professor at the University of Oklahoma. She holds a J.D. from the College of William and Mary and has published widely on criminal law and the right to counsel.


Xavier Cortada is Professor of Practice at the University of Miami Department of Art and Art History. He grew up in Miami and holds degrees from the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, School of Law, and Graduate School of Business. His work merges art with other disciplines, including law, science, and politics.