During the 1960s, after years of upholding the suppression of individual rights during World Wars I and II, and the New and Fair Deals, the Supreme Court seized the opportunity to refocus and concentrate on individual rights. There were two major cases in the early 60s which led the way in the quest for protected rights of the accused. The first of these was Gideon v. Wainwright, in 1963. In a unanimous ruling, the Court held that state courts were required to provide counsel in criminal cases in which the defendant was unable to afford their own. It was believed by all nine justices that it was impossible to have a fair trial without the essential fundamental right of counsel. At this juncture, the state of Florida—as did many states—only provided counsel to defendants charged with capital crimes.
The second case which paved the way was Escobedo v. Illinois (1964). After being arrested as the prime suspect in the murder of his brother-in-law, Danny Escobedo was taken to the police station where he immediately asked to speak with his attorney. Police started their interrogation and refused to let Escobedo speak to his lawyer. Escobedo’s attorney arrived and was refused access to his client. After fourteen hours of interrogation, Escobedo was allowed to speak with his attorney—after already implicating himself in the murder of his brother-in-law. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction and held that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to counsel, to everyone.
From the inception of this country, men have fought to protect the rights of the individual. Our Founding Fathers guaranteed certain rights in the Bill of Rights; however, there were no provisions ensuring that every citizen was made aware of these rights. In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), in a 5-4 split decision, the Supreme Court put an end to this erroneous pattern, which had established itself as normalcy in the criminal justice system. Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the following opinion of the Court: “The person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he has the right to remain silent, and that anything he says will be used against him in court; he must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation, and that, if he is indigent, a lawyer will be appointed to represent him.”
The above opinion would be worded differently and become known throughout the nation as “Miranda rights.” Simply put, police officers were “required…to advise suspects of their rights and then to desist from questioning if suspects asserted those rights.” Of course there are other ways to obtain confessions other than by browbeating someone unaware of the fact that they have the right to remain silent. An example of this would be Brown v. Mississippi (1936). It was not until Brown v. Mississippi that the Court ruled that an involuntary confession could not be extracted by violence. In this particular case, the confessions of three defendants were procured through whippings and by stringing one of the defendants up by his neck from a tree. In a unanimous decision, the Court determined that this was a clear violation of the Due Process Clause and reversed the convictions of the defendants.
Over the next several decades the Court would add other forms of coercion to the list of ways in which police had illegally obtained confessions. In Payne v. Arkansas (1964), the Court held that a suspect’s confession could not come at the hands of psychological brutality. After not having counsel for three days, and hardly having any food, the Chief of Police told a suspect in custody that “there would be 30 or 40 people there in a few minutes that wanted to get him,” that was unless he wanted to confess. The Chief of Police assured him that if he confessed, that he could offer the suspect protection. Sure enough, an immediate confession was given.
While all the aforementioned Supreme Court cases would play an important role in establishing suspect’s rights, Miranda v. Arizona would be the first in a series that concretely define the protected rights of a suspect. Like a waterfall, the following two years would bring case after case, cascading against (and drowning) the criminal justice system that had masterfully maneuvered around the rights of the individual. The following year, in Miller v. Pate (1967), the Court reversed a conviction on the basis that the state could not convict a criminal, whose conviction was based on false evidence. In the same year, in Enstminger v. Iowa, the Court required that states are required to provide full trial transcripts for defendants seeking appeals. Another case occurred in 1967 which further supported the individual’s Fifth Amendment right—Sims v. Georgia. In this case, the Court held that the state has the responsibility to prove that confessions were not a result of coercion.
Other than Miranda v. Arizona, the case during this two-year time period that was most controversial, which “managed to offend both law-and-order groups and advocated of special youth courts,” was In re Gault (1967). It was in this case that the Court held in an 8-1 decision that juveniles should receive full rights that adults received under the Fourteenth and Sixth Amendments, including: due process, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to counsel.
Due to the heightened concern of terrorism in the United States, the Legislative and Executive branches have recently started removing individual’s rights for those suspected of links and ties to, or involvement with terrorist organizations. Some of the more interesting cases have been those which have ruled that activities taking place at Guantanamo Bay are unconstitutional—Hamdan v. Runsfeld (2006) and Boumediene v. Bush (2008) are both examples of these. If history does repeat itself, I believe that big action should soon be expected from the Supreme Court. As individuals’ rights are taken away for what—at the time—is best for America, it is up to the Court to return those rights in a timely fashion.