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Public defender reflects on 50th anniversary of landmark case

By Joe Beck

The effects of a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued 50 years ago on Monday that began with a poor drifter sentenced to five years in prison can still be seen every day in area courtrooms.

The legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright can been seen locally through the 10 attorneys in the state Public Defender's Office in Winchester, who fan out to represent clients deemed by judges to be too poor to afford an attorney. They, along with those doing similar work in countless other jurisdictions, are products of the landmark 1963 decision.

"We're a lasting testament to that decision," Public Defender Timothy Coyne said Monday in the Winchester office. "It was an incredibly important decision, the right of counsel for folks facing jail or prison."

The decision means that no criminal defendant should ever be denied the right to an attorney, even if he can't pay for one. Instead, a judge will appoint one, either a public defender or a private defense attorney willing to take such cases.

Clarence Earl Gideon didn't have an attorney when, in 1961, he was convicted of stealing bottled drinks and vending machine coins form a pool hall in Panama City, Fla. What he did have was a firm belief that he deserved legal representation. He initially pleaded his case to the Supreme Court, in pencil, on a piece of prison stationary. The Supreme Court chose a lawyer for him, and on March 18, 1963, the court delivered a unanimous ruling that defendants in criminal cases have a right to legal counsel under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.

Gideon won acquittal in a retrial.

The Winchester Public Defender's Office opened in 1987 and has been serving defendants in Frederick, Clarke, Warren, Shenandoah and Page counties and Winchester ever since.

Those who call the office asking for an attorney to represent them will be disappointed. The office can represent defendants only after a judge has decided they don't have the money to hire their own attorney. The Commonwealth's Attorney must also be seeking a jail term for a criminal defendant to qualify for a court-appointed attorney.

Coyne said he believes that significantly more than half of the criminal defendants in all the cases within his office's coverage area require a public defender. The caseload varies from 3,400 to 3,600 cases. Last year's total of 3,650 meant that the 10 attorneys were averaging about 365 cases, some of which involve a single defendant who has more than one case pending.

Some judges and lawyers have decried what they call excessive caseloads that hobble the ability of the public defender to adequately represent individual clients. Coyne described his office as busy, but not overworked.

"I'm certainly not feeling there are too many cases," he said. "It's a manageable number for the experienced staff we have."

The American Bar Association and the president's National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommends no more than 150 felony cases or 400 misdemeanor cases per full-time attorney, but Coyne said those standards were set too many years ago to be of much value now.

"We're pleased where we are," Coyne said. "We've certainly come a long way. I've been in this job since 2004 and seen great improvements in the level of counsel being provided to folks.

"I just want make sure we keep moving forward, that we don't take the right to counsel for granted."

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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