The people behind 4 landmark Supreme Court cases shaping defendants' rights

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This week, I wrote about diversity on the nation's highest court. To find out why some lawyers and legal scholars think the absence of a criminal defense attorney perspective on the nine-person bench is a big deal, click here

While reporting this article, I read several landmark cases that have shaped constitutional rights of criminal defendants. Their stories are fascinating. One is a convicted murderer, two are indigent and dropped out before finishing high school, and the fourth is considered the "Rosa Parks of the Fourth Amendment." 

Brady v. Maryland (1963): John Brady was convicted of killing a man and was sentenced to die for it. The Supreme Court overturned his sentence because prosecutors withheld evidence at trial. Here's the story:

Brady planned to rob a bank in order to provide for his family, but first he needed a get-away car. With the help of another man, Donald Boblit, Brady targeted William Brooks' Ford Fairlane. The two men drove Brooks to a nearby field, and strangled him to death. Both men were tried separately, and at trial, Brady admitted to participating in the crime, but said Boblit did the strangling. Both were convicted and sentenced to death. 

Attorneys for Brady later found out that the prosecution withheld Boblit's confession, wherein he admitted that he, not Brady, strangled the victim. The Supreme Court ruled the withholding of evidence a violation of Brady's due process rights, and sent the case back for a resentencing hearing. But, since a "punishment-phase-only trial" was so novel at the time, Brady sat in prison as an unsentenced man until 1973 when the governor granted him clemency. He served 18 years. 

Mapp v. Ohio (1961): Dollree Mapp was a single teenage mother who bounced from Mississippi to New York to Cleveland, and had semi-regular run-ins with the police. Her case is significant not only because she, as an African-American woman, had the guts to stand up to white officers in the 1950s, but it's also referred to as the spark of a "due process revolution" and she the "Rosa Parks of the Fourth Amendment." 

In 1957, three officers looking for a suspect of a recent bombing demanded to look inside Mapp's house. She refused, telling the officers she wanted to see a search warrant. Soon, more officers returned and forced their way in the house, flashing a piece of paper they claimed was a warrant (hint: it wasn't). Mapp snatched the phony warrant and shoved it down her blouse, but an officer fished it out and handcuffed her while they searched.

It's unclear if they found the bombing suspect, but it is clear that they did find allegedly pornographic books. She was convicted of obscenity. 

Up until 1961 when her case reached the Supreme Court, the rule barring evidence gained by an illegal search only applied at the federal level. In other words, if police busted into your house without a warrant and found your drugs, you were probably out of luck in state cases. 

But after 1961, the court reversed Mapp's conviction, and said the rule also applied at the state level. 

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963): Clarence Gideon was a drifter with an eighth grade education who first tangled with police as a teenager. He was a career criminal who cycled in and out of jail for nonviolent crimes. The former mayor, police chief and sheriff of Gideon's hometown doesn't mince words: "Around here, people just figure him as a no-good punk." 

In 1961, Gideon was accused of breaking into a Panama City, Florida, pool hall and stealing beer, wine, cigarettes and money, but he could not afford a lawyer. 

At trial, he asked the judge to appoint him one, but the judge refused, saying Florida law only required the state to provide counsel for capital cases. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. In 1963, however, the Supreme Court responded to Gideon's argument that the poor deserved adequate representation. The court sent his case back for a new trial, and with a lawyer to plead his case, was acquitted of all charges. 

Miranda v. Arizona (1966): Ernesto Miranda, a high school dropout with a history of mental issues, was sentenced to 20-30 years for kidnapping and raping an 18-year-old woman. At trial, prosecutors used Miranda's confession to police after two hours of interrogation to gain the conviction.

The Supreme Court took issue with that confession because Miranda was not informed of his right against self-incrimination and right to have a lawyer present when being questioned by police (Fifth and Sixth amendments, respectively). The court threw out the conviction.

Now, police are required to read suspects Miranda Rights: "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?" 

Miranda was retried, this time without his confession used as evidence. He was again convicted and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison.