Trials: And the Court Said unto Gideon

Every year the U.S. Supreme Court receives hundreds of petitions from prisoners asking to have their cases reviewed. Many are handwritten on prison stationery, some are barely legible, most have no legal merit. But every now and then, one leads to an important decision. This year a handwritten letter from a Florida prisoner named Clarence Earl Gideon brought about a ruling that changed judicial procedures in several states and caused countless new trials in Florida.

Gideon, now 52, already had a prison record when he was arrested in 1961, charged with breaking...

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