Book Review

“Like many Americans, neither Sean nor his family had given much thought to ‘public defenders’ or ‘indigent defense.’… Legal services for the poor and the working class was not an issue for them. Why would it be? They had never been in trouble with the law.” That is, until eighteen-year-old Sean Replogle, within a week of buying his first and only car, found himself in an accident. He was speeding (though, as it would turn out, not nearly as fast as the damning police report would claim), but he wasn’t high or drunk. He was on his way home from work at four in the afternoon when a car rolled by a stop sign in front of him and he collided with it. A week later, the elderly driver of the second car died in the hospital, and just like that, Replogle was charged with vehicular manslaughter.

I had been in a similar accident when I was eighteen, and reading the first chapter of Karen Houppert’s Chasing Gideon, it occurred to me that, had the other driver died as a result, I could have landed in the same horrible situation. Except for one thing. I could have afforded an attorney.

The 1963 Supreme Court Decision Gideon v. Wainwright found that “any person hauled into court who is too poor to hire a lawyer cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” Thus, a promise was made, and not simply an admirable one, but one that strikes me as utterly essential. Imagine a time when the accused stood alone, against a prosecution made up of learned, practiced lawyers with resources and abilities the defendant could barely comprehend, let alone implement, with a hopeless plea of not guilty. Try it now, for the sake of experiment. Turn to the person next to you, doesn’t matter who, and say, “I didn’t do it.” Likely that person, without the slightest clue as to the crime, will already assume your guilt.

And so, finally, we have a promise, a vital one, but one that, Houppert asserts, has not been kept.

It’s easy to get angry reading Houppert’s book. You may, in fact, find yourself pitching it across the room. The moment, say, when Replogle’s court-appointed attorney requests a continuance, “explaining that she had had five back-to-back trials on her calendar” and that without more time to properly prepare (only days before the trial) this would be “ineffective assistance of counsel,” and the judge denies her. Or the moment when Replogle’s attorney, after taking a stand for all overworked public defenders and their hundreds of thousands of clients by refusing to conduct Replogle’s defense, is fired, essentially for raising awareness and “rabble-rousing” on the Internet.

Easier yet to get angry upon reading Houppert’s well-collected and horrifying statistics. In 2008 individual public defenders in Nevada “carried felony and gross misdemeanor caseloads of 364 (more than double the American Bar Association recommended standard of 150).” Caseloads in Missouri were so high that defenders “were required to dispose of a case every 6.6 hours of every working day.” Public defenders’ offices across the board were funded half as much as prosecutors’ offices. Not to mention the soaring number of felony arrests, staggering incarceration rates, and the surge of mandatory sentencing laws thanks to our never-ending war on drugs. Not to mention the roughly one million taxpayer dollars necessary to hold a single prisoner if he “enters prison in his early 20s” and “lives past 70.” Not to mention the conflict of interest inherent in systems of privately run prisons that make $25 a day per prisoner, nor the extreme corruption that allows a judge to appoint his or her friends to counsel, or to redistribute income slated for indigent defense to benefit other court agencies instead. It is this corruption that allows—no, forces—Greg Bright, wrongfully imprisoned (thanks to absurdly ineffective counsel) for a murder he clearly did not commit, to submit his appeal to the very judge who, before his promotion, had been on the prosecuting team at Bright’s initial trial:

 There was a sign over the majestic stone courthouse in New Orleans that haunted [Bright]. ‘This is a government of law not men,’ it said. But Greg was discovering that men—in particular, the influential white elite of New Orleans—had complicated backstories and powerful allegiances. The obstacles this created for a poor black man were nearly insurmountable.

 Bright would remain in prison for twenty-seven years.

But Chasing Gideon is not only an investigation of our criminal justice system, its politics and promises, its triumphs and deficiencies, but also of the way we perceive “justice.” Through a series of case studies, from Sean Replogle’s car accident and Greg Bright’s wrongful imprisonment to a man facing a death sentence who may or may not be mentally handicapped and therefore ineligible, Houppert manages to put to question, if not dismantle entirely, our many myths and comfortable assumptions about justice in this country. Our faith, for example, in good police work, is shaken by such discoveries as the intentional (or perhaps lazy) doubling of the length of Replogle’s skid marks which put his speed at twenty miles an hour over the limit.

“I thought what you read in a police report was true,” Replogle’s attorney remembers of her first trial (she was handed a DUI case to defend, by herself, within a week of being hired). “I don’t think that now.”

Our faith that all receive a fair trial and that justice is color blind is put to test by Houppert’s elucidation of the process by which prosecuting attorneys, who don’t want African Americans on a jury because they typically oppose capital punishment and tend “to be more distrustful of police testimony,” manage to strike them from the pool by claiming not race, which would be illegal, but that “they live in a ‘high-crime area’ (meaning a predominantly black neighborhood); are unemployed or receive food stamps; or had a child out of wedlock.”

Houppert tackles our preconceived notions with unflagging and, at times, inconvenient honesty. She paints Clarence Earl Gideon, the man behind Gideon v. Wainwright, not with the Hollywood fantasy of Henry Fonda’s portrayal in the 1980 biopic, but rather with all the complexities of a troubled history of which Gideon himself admits he is not proud. Thus, Houppert raises the question of whether it matters, when it comes to supporting the rights of the accused, that we like or even relate to the accused—though, to be fair, it’s hard not to admire Gideon’s pluck. And in an even more astonishing move, Houppert uses the last chapter of her book to confront the reader, brutally, with coverage of a murder trial in which the defendant is clearly guilty, a chapter that begins with the sobering 911 call from the victim’s mother: “‘…I came home from work, he called me and said…the window broken…Oh, oh, Lord, help me…’” Then, just as I begin to question such a choice and whether it complicates an otherwise solid critique of our criminal justice system, Houppert writes:

…I notice that [the victim’s] grandmother Annie Sampson, teary eyed after her testimony, dropped a wadded tissue, and that [the defendant’s] sister, who clutched a tissue of her own in one hand, bent to retrieve Sampson’s tissue and hand it back to the elderly woman. Sampson thanks her, they smile, and I probably overinterpret this as a sign that our powers of empathy will ultimately overwhelm our desire for revenge.

Fearlessly, and with the elegance of literary journalism at its best, Houppert takes her exploration of the public defense crisis to its logical and emotional extreme—faced with murder, can we as an evolved society still realize the need for justice over vengeance? Or will we go back to our knee-jerk, comfortable narratives of right and wrong, heroes and villains, crime and punishment, our astonishment that anyone would opt into the field of indigent defense to begin with—“How can you do that, defend those murderers?”

“Empathy,” Houppert writes, “is dangerous.”

Indeed it is.

About the Reviewer

Nicholas Maistros holds an MFA in fiction from Colorado State University. His stories and essays have been published in Bellingham Review, Nimrod, and the Literary Review. He currently lives in New York City.