The Law and You: Why we have public defenders | Opinion

The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution has many important guarantees applicable when a person is charged with a crime. These are the rights to (1) a speedy and public trial, (2) before an impartial jury, (3) in the district where the crime was committed, and (4) to be informed of the accusation, (5) to confront the witnesses against them, (6) the right to subpoena witnesses, and (7) to have the assistance of defense counsel.

We are going to focus on the last one: that a person charged with crime has the right to have a lawyer represent them. Having an attorney was well understood as being an important, meaningful right. Even in colonial days before this country’s independence, in the most unpopular crimes, the legal system recognized the need for legal counsel. John Adams, who later became President, defended British soldiers who killed five colonists during the 1770 “Boston Massacre.”

The public was strongly against the British, yet Adams took the case because he “believed in upholding the law, and defending the innocent. Adams was convinced that the soldiers were wrongly accused . . . .” The British Captain and six soldiers were acquitted, while two soldiers were convicted of the lesser offense of manslaughter.

According to a recent book on the case (John Adams Under Fire: The Founding Father’s Fight for Justice in the Boston Massacre Murder Trial, by Dan Abrams and David Fisher), the public accepted the fairness of the trials and the verdicts, despite strong emotions against the British.

For almost two centuries, it was accepted that US Constitutional rights did not apply to state crimes. This changed in 1963, when the US Supreme Court decided Gideon v Wainright. A Florida man was charged with “breaking and entering,” and requested a lawyer be appointed to

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