Gideon had to defend himself in court, but without an education, legal experience, or any knowledge of the law, he did not do a good job. An attorney who did not represent Gideon later said that the trial "was a simple case with a simple man, trying to act like a lawyer, but making a pitiful effort. A lawyer—not a great lawyer, just an ordinary, competent lawyer—could have made ashes of the case." Gideon was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.
He then turned to the highest court in the United States for help. Gideon filed his case in forma pauperis with the U.S. Supreme Court. In forma pauperis is Latin for "in the character or manner of a pauper." It allows people who are too poor to afford a lawsuit or an attorney to pursue legal action without having to pay many of the legal fees and costs. He argued that his right to legal representation as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution had been violated. From his prison cell Gideon wrote, "It makes no difference how old I am or what color I am or what church I belong to if any. The question is I did not get a fair trial. The question is very simple. I requested the court to appoint me an attorney and the court refused."
Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) - Bill of Rights Institute
When Clarence Earl Gideon picked up a pencil to write his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, he set a series of events in motion that changed the nation's legal system, proving that sometimes one person can make an important difference.