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All of the states now provide some method of appeal from criminal convictions, recognizing the importance of appellate review to a correct adjudication of guilt or innocence. Statistics show that a substantial proportion of criminal convictions are reversed by state appellate courts. Thus to deny adequate review to the poor means that many of them may lose their life, liberty or property because of unjust convictions which appellate courts would set aside. Many states have recognized this and provided aid for convicted defendants who have a right to appeal and need a transcript but are unable to pay for it. A few have not. Such a denial is a misfit in a country dedicated to affording equal justice to all and special privileges to none in the administration of its criminal law. There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has. Destitute defendants must be afforded as adequate appellate review as defendants who have money enough to buy transcripts.
Under Illinois law indigent defendants may obtain a free transcript to obtain appellate review of constitutional questions, but, except for capital cases, not of other alleged trial errors such as admissibility and sufficiency of evidence. After their convictions of armed robbery in an Illinois state court, the defendants filed a motion in the trial court asking that, in view of their inability to pay, a certified copy of the record, necessary for a complete bill of exceptions as required by Illinois law for a full appellate review, be furnished them without cost. The trial court denied the motion without a hearing. The defendants then filed a petition under the Illinois Post-Conviction Hearing Act, alleging that refusal to afford full appellate review solely because of poverty was a denial of due process and equal protection. Their petitions were dismissed by the state courts. On certiorari, the defendants contended that the failure to provide them with the needed transcript violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of U.S. Const. amend. XIV.
Were the defendants’ right to due process and equal protection violated by the court’s refusal to afford full appellate review solely because of poverty?
The court held that due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment were violated where a state statute providing for writs of error in all criminal cases as a matter of right was so administered as to deny full appellate review in a noncapital felony case to an indigent defendant solely because of his inability to pay for a transcript of the record, while granting such review to all other defendants. The court noted that both the equal protection and due process emphasized the central aim of the entire judicial system – all people charged with crime must, so far as the law was concerned, stand on equality before the bar of justice in every American court. In criminal trials, a state can no more discriminate on account of poverty than on account of religion, race, or color. Plainly, the ability to pay costs in advance bore no rational relationship to a defendant’s guilt or innocence and could not be used as an excuse to deprive a defendant of a fair trial.