This is why everyone charged with a crime gets a lawyer even if you can't afford one
About nine out of every 10 people charged with a felony or misdemeanor in Merced County in 2017 were not able to afford an attorney.
Nearly eight of those individuals were represented by the public defenders, according to data from the Merced County Public Defender’s Office. But without Clarence Earl Gideon’s fight 55 years ago against a Florida court system, those Merced County defendants might fight for their freedom without the help of any legal expertise.
Gideon, a Florida man with little money and an eighth-grade education, was charged in 1961 with breaking and entering with the intent to commit a misdemeanor, according to U.S. Court documents.
During his trial, Gideon appeared with no attorney and asked the judge to appoint one because he couldn’t afford one. But the judge denied the request based on previous laws relating to the Sixth and Seventh Amendments, and judicial precedence.
So Gideon represented himself in his case. He lost and was sentenced to five years in prison. While serving that sentence, he studied the law and challenged the conviction up to the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright, arguing that he didn’t have a fair trial because he was denied an attorney.
On March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Gideon’s favor, and in every indigent defendant’s favor, by noting the right to counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial.
The Merced County Public Defender’s Office was created nearly a year later, as a result of the Gideon v. Wainwright decision, according to information from Sun-Star archives.
Data compiled by the Public Defender’s Office shows how much people charged in Merced County rely on the free lawyer rights granted by the Gideon v. Wainwright decision.
The Public Defender’s Office was appointed to represent defendants who were deemed unable to pay for an attorney, which was about 78 percent of all Merced County cases in 2017. About 11 percent of defendants hired private attorneys, and 11 percent were appointed an attorney from the Public Defender’s Office’s contracted conflict legal firm, according to the office.
In those cases, the Public Defender’s Office acted as the arm of justice counter-balancing the prosecuting District Attorney’s Office that gets its reputation for putting away bad criminals.
Merced County Public Defender Dave Elgin said his office often doesn’t get the same positive reputation as the District Attorney’s Office because it represents the charged individuals, often labeled as criminals before they’re convicted, rather than the reported victims of crimes.
“When you pay for a Public Defender’s Office, you’re paying for the constitution,” said Elgin, noting that deputy public defenders are tasked with providing dedicated attorneys who advocate for the accused.
“We are a law enforcement agency,” said Chris Loethen, a 10-year deputy public defender, adding that deputy public defenders make sure that policing and prosecuting agencies don’t overstep the law in trying to convict an individual with a crime.
“People think a public defender’s job is to get guilty people off,” Loethen said. “That’s not our job. ... We make sure their rights are protected.”
The Public Defender’s Office, through its function of helping indigent defendants, also acts as an advocate for the poor, Deputy Public Defender Stephanie Jamieson said.
“The poorest are the most likely to be arrested,” Jamieson said. “Without public defenders doing their jobs, people could more often have confessions beaten out of them, harassed. ... They could be convicted of charges,” despite being innocent.
About 97 percent of cases in Merced County handled by the Public Defender’s Office end up with a settlement or plea deal, Elgin said, often amplifying a public defender’s role to the level of a jury that checks the evidence and balances against the charging power of a district attorney and the convicting power of the court.
Loethen and Jamieson have noticed that many don’t realize the value of a public defender until they are charged with a misdemeanor or felony.
It’s that value that keeps them working for the Public Defender’s Office.
“People don’t realize the goodness of (our) clients, many of them who are guilty are remorseful,” Loethen said. “Our clients are people, they’re human beings. They are so appreciative of the Public Defender’s Office.”
After the result of Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, Gideon received an opportunity to have his case re-heard with the help of an appointed attorney.
The result: a jury acquitted him after one hour of deliberation. It was a perfect case to set up the protection of a fundamental right, and the formation of the public defender system.
“Thanks to Gideon, we are helping everyone,” Jamieson said.