The Guarantee of Equal Access to Justice

Nine members of the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office pose with Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor (front right) and David Greenwald of the Vanguard (back left). To his left in white is Public Defender Tracie Olson.

Part One in Celebration of National Public Defense Week, March 18-24, 2018

By Tracie Olson

National Public Defense Week kicked off March 18th and we are celebrating!

The birth of public defense

In 1963, a pool hall in Florida was broken into and money and liquor stolen. Based on the statement of a single eyewitness, a drifter named Clarence Gideon was arrested and jailed.

When Mr. Gideon first appeared before a judge, he proclaimed his innocence and asked for a lawyer.  The judge told him that anyone too poor to hire counsel had to defend themself.

Mr. Gideon tried his best, but a jury convicted him and the judge sentenced him to serve five years in state prison.

While sitting in his prison cell, Mr. Gideon picked up a pencil and, on prison stationery, wrote out a petition to the United States Supreme Court in which he said it was not fair that he could not have a lawyer to defend him when his freedom was at stake simply because he was too poor to afford one.

The Supreme Court agreed with him. Justice Hugo Black stated it was an “obvious truth” that without counsel for the defense there can be no assurance of a fair trial.

The case was Gideon v. Wainwright.

From this Supreme Court decision, public defender offices throughout the country began to spring up.  No longer would anyone charged with a crime be denied the help of a lawyer simply because they were too poor to afford one.

And what happened to Clarence Gideon?  Mr. Gideon was granted a new trial, and with the assistance of counsel, he was acquitted of all charges and set free.

Enforcing the guarantee to counsel in Yolo County

In Yolo County, the right to legal representation means the right to receive a trained attorney who will pursue with knowledge and skill whatever lawful and ethical measures are required to
vindicate a client’s cause.

This right encompasses investigators to interview witnesses, track down evidence and subpoena documents.  It also includes legal secretaries, paralegals, social workers and interns who work directly with our clients and assist the attorneys to prepare for court.

We fight for justice through zealous litigation.  Yolo County consistently ranks in the top five in the state in conducting jury trials per capita.

In the last two weeks alone, three juries fully exonerated public defender adult clients with charges ranging from misdemeanor battery to felony assault with firearms and gang enhancements.

In that same time frame, additional cases were dismissed outright for lack of evidence or through favorable court rulings after contested litigation.  These results are repeated week after week.

In addition to aggressively seeking justice through litigation, the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office delivers on the promise of equal justice by practicing holistic defense.  Part two of this story will explain more later this week.

Tracie Olson is the Yolo County Public Defender 

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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