The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that in all criminal prosecutions, the accused has the right to an attorney to aid in his or her defense. This point was underscored in the 1962 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the U.S. Supreme court held legal representation is vital to the protection of fundamental rights of life and liberty of someone accused in a criminal matter.
This is why if a defendant is unable to afford one, the court is compelled to appoint one.
The fact is, governments spend vast amounts of money for the purposes of arresting, prosecuting, convicting and incarcerating defendants. The end goal is to protect the public interest in an orderly society.
But this is exactly why criminal defendants must hire the best Birmingham criminal defense lawyer they can. Defendants are going to be up against prosecutors who are highly experienced, well compensated and passionate. In order for a defense to be effective, your criminal defense attorney's skill and dedication needs to be at least evenly matched. In our justice system, we like to believe it's the truth that will set you free. But the reality is, it's usually good lawyer.
That said, some people truly are unable to afford it, and in those cases, the court must appoint someone. The court doesn't guarantee that the appointed counsel will be anyone with extensive experience, but you should at minimum receive someone who is competent and who ensures your due process rights are respected.
In the case of Dickerson v. Alabama, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled this did not happen.
Defendant was accused and later convicted of first-degree robbery of a gas station/convenience store, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
The underlying incident involved an armed confrontation with the owner of the store, in which gunfire was briefly exchanged. No one was injured, but defendant was arrested several days later. He was indicted, found indigent and the court appointed a defense attorney to represent him. However, he did not appear for his arraignment. Two days later, his court-appointed counsel asked to withdraw, noting he'd been unable to contact defendant for at least a month. Initially, no action was taken, but the trial was scheduled for a year later. Two weeks before trial, the court granted the attorney's motion to withdraw.
When defendant failed to appear for trial, the court issued an arrest warrant. He was arrested and taken into custody a year later, and he remained imprisoned until his trial. In May 2014, defendant filed a notice of indigence, indicating he had no income or assets, and requested the court provide him with an attorney. The court denied the request by simply declaring defendant wasn't indigent.
As soon as the trial began, a pro bono attorney stepped forward to request the circuit court reconsider the decision not to appoint counsel. The lawyer noted defendant was facing 10 years to life imprisonment if convicted, and based on the serious nature of the allegations, the law required the court to appoint a lawyer. The attorney indicated he knew defendant personally and knew he had no money or assets.
The judge countered the defendant was “able-bodied,” “capable of work” and “intelligent,” and that he'd had enough time and opportunity make payment arrangements with a private lawyer. The attorney noted defendant had been incarcerated for more than year by the time he was facing trial.
In response, the judge responded defendant “may be indigent,” but that he had chosen not to work during his life. The judge went on to say defendant had been given many chances, but the trial would continue as planned. A standby attorney was appointed to advice defendant of the procedural process, but he was not allowed to offer defendant advice on how to try the case.
Defendant was convicted.
On appeal, defendant asserted violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, reversed and remanded. The court noted in addition to the U.S. Constitution, Rule 6.1 Ala. R. Crim. P. affords criminal defendants the right to counsel.
Justices on appeal noted there was nothing on record to dispute defendant's claim of indigence, and trial court even conceded he “may be indigent.” The court didn't reference defendant's own income or assets, but rather his family's ability to pay for a lawyer and his own ability to work. But defendant's family had no legal responsibility to pay for his defense, and his physical ability to work didn't make him able to pay for his defense.
Thus, the court abused its discretion in denying appointment of a lawyer.
Dickerson v. Alabama, March 13, 2015, Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals