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Road after Gideon: Rights of the Indigent

Stetson Law Professor Bruce Jacob will receive national recognition.

Stetson Law Professor and Dean Emeritus Bruce Jacob has handled cases for indigent clients for 50 years.

As a young lawyer in his 20s working for the Florida attorney general in Tallahassee 50 years ago, a Stetson University College of Law graduate named Bruce Jacob was assigned to represent the respondent in a Supreme Court case that made history.

The Court’s landmark decision on March 18, 1963, regarding the right to a fair trial in Gideon v. Wainwright was the impetus for the idea of public defenders. Jacob, now a professor and dean emeritus at Stetson University College of Law, was inspired to dedicate the next 50 years of his life to handling cases for indigent clients.

Shortly after the decision in Gideon, Jacob said he signed up as a volunteer public defender, one of the first in the state.

“I just thought it was the right thing to do,” Jacob explained.

After joining the faculty at Emory University School of Law in 1965, Jacob established the Legal Assistance for Inmates Program at the Atlanta Penitentiary. In just the first two weeks after its launch, more than 750 inmates approached the program for assistance. Jacob supervised the program and 53 students who volunteered to work on cases. In 1969, Jacob took a federal prisoner’s case to the Supreme Court and won the case for the petitioner in Kaufman v. United States.

While studying at Harvard Law School, Jacob helped start the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project. Through the Community Legal Assistance Office in Cambridge, Mass., Jacob supervised law students defending criminal cases and representing indigent people.

Jacob fought for the rights of the indigent throughout his teaching career. He has taught 20 different law school courses over the past 48 years. Jacob currently teaches courses on constitutional law, administrative law, criminal law and criminal procedure at Stetson University, where he has received hundreds of letters from inmates and lawyers through the years requesting his expertise.

Jacob is taking one inmate’s case, the case of Dwight Roberts, to the Florida Supreme Court. That case involves a sentence that was imposed on the basis of an unconstitutional statute, Jacob said.

Recently, Jacob also took the clemency case of Jerome Davis, referred to him by the Public Defender’s Office. A non-violent offender, Davis was convicted multiple times for selling cocaine or fake cocaine and sentenced in 1991 to life in prison, the highest penalty allowed. Jacob estimated that the combined sum of money Davis made from all drug sales was $70 and that tax-payers have spent approximately $30K a year on Davis’ prison stay over the past 20 years.

“Sentences in the U.S. are longer than in any other country in the world,” Jacob said.

Jacob is asking Florida’s clemency board to consider whether Davis’ life-sentence fits his crime, the same sentence defendants convicted of sexual battery, child molestation, and murder have received. Ultimately, the state attorney general, Commissioner of Agriculture and governor will review the clemency application that he filed on May 30, 2012, Jacob said.

One obstacle to shorter prison sentences for non-violent offenders like Davis, Jacob said, could be opposition from the prison industry itself, which supports employees who are caretakers of long-term prisoners. Another obstacle is the struggle to provide indigent people with adequate counsel.

Fifty years after Gideon, Jacob said that public defender offices are underfunded and lawyers are overwhelmed with cases.

“The justice system requires ethical prosecutors and solid defense lawyers,” Jacob said “Without criminal defense lawyers, the justice system disintegrates.”

Jacob is appealing Dwight Roberts’ case in April.

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Related articles:

“Remembering Gideon’s Lawyers”
By Professor Bruce Jacob
Published in The Champion, June 2012

“Memories of and Reflections about Gideon v. Wainwright”
By Professor Bruce Jacob
Published in Stetson Law Review, Fall 2003

“Fifty years after Gideon, lawyers still struggle to provide counsel to the indigent”
By Mark Walsh
Published in the ABA Journal, March 2013

“So You Want to Learn More About the Gideon Case?”
By Andrew Cohen
Published in the Atlantic, March 2013