Keynote Address — Effective Assistance of Counsel for the Indigent Criminal Defendant: Has the Promise Been Fulfilled


I begin my remarks and this Colloquium with the following text:

The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. If charged with a crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he have a perfect one.He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.

These words were written by Justice Sutherland more than 52 years ago in Powell v. Alabama. This was the case of the Scottsboro Boys, in which theSupreme Court held that the right to an attorney must be provided in a capital case. Since that decision in 1932, there have been other historic decisions in the development of the right to counsel. In 1963, Gideon v. Wainwright extended the right to counsel to all state felony prosecutions and made it clear that counsel must be appointed unless the right to an attorney is competently and intelligently waived. In 1972, Argersinger v. Hamlin extended the right to an attorney to misdemeanor cases in which the accused suffers a loss of liberty. In other historic decisions, the Supreme Court has required that counsel be made available in juvenile delinquency proceedings, at lineups, at preliminary hearings, and on a defendant’s first appeal.

Suggested Reading

This is a transcript of a speech by Vince Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). The speech was originally delivered at the Bertha Justice Institute Social Justice Conference on June 6, 2014.