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Johnson v. Zerbst


Johnson raised the standard set in 1932 by Powell v. Alabama, in which the Court held that counsel must be appointed to all indigent criminal defendants facing the possibility of the death sentence in federal court.

On 21 November 1934, John Johnson was arrested in Charleston, South Carolina, for possessing and passing four counterfeit $20 bills--a federal offense. At the time, he was enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was indicted on 21 January 1935 and tried and sentenced two days later to four and one-half years in prison. He began to serve his sentence two days later, when he was transported to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.

While he was serving his sentence, Johnson filed a petition for habeas corpus--a request to be released on the grounds that he had been illegally detained--with the federal distinct court. Johnson cited as the basis for his petition the fact that he had been tried, convicted, and sentenced without benefit of counsel. Johnson, who lacked the funds to hire his own attorney, had asked the district attorney to appoint a lawyer to represent him at his trial. But after the district attorney told him that South Carolina only appointed counsel to indigent defendants when they were facing the possibility of capital punishment, the issue was dropped. Asked by the court if he had a lawyer, Johnson merely answered no and agreed that he was ready for trial.

Now, in his habeas corpus petition, Johnson claimed that he had been deprived of his right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment, which reads: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." When the district court denied his petition, he appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed this decision. Johnson's next step was to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Johnson v. Zerbst - Significance, Supreme Court Requires That Counsel Be Appointed, Federal Court Of Appeals