Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest
for Poor People’s Justice
by Karen Houppert
New Press, $26.95, hardcover
"I have no counsel." Defendant Clarence Earl Gideon's response to Judge Robert L. McCrary Jr.'s inquiry into his readiness for trial was concise but poignant and this simple statement and subsequent request for court-appointed counsel changed the landscape of indigent defense. In 1962, following the court's refusal to provide a lawyer for Gideon and his subsequent appeals, he sent a handwritten letter to the U.S. Supreme Court. That year, following the submission of amicus briefs and oral arguments, the Supreme Court's ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright
(372 U.S. 335 (1963)) ensured that every defendant charged with a felony or misdemeanor would have the benefit of appointed counsel if he could not afford his own.
Fifty years after the decision, author Karen Houppert's Chasing Gideon
describes a dramatically different legal climate; a world where mandatory minimums, the "War on Drugs," and the sheer number of prosecutions have placed considerable pressure on the ability of indigent defense to fulfill the ideals set forth by Gideon v. Wainwright
. In Gideon's home state of Florida, Dade County has struggled to meet the burden of public defense to the point where in the 1980s the Public Defender appealed to the Florida Supreme Court for the right to refuse new cases to protect attorneys from exacerbating already crushing caseloads. Carefully and consciously written, Houppert recounts tale after tale of people whose lives were deeply affected by the public defense system.
In Washington State, a 12-year-old juvenile in Grant County unknowingly pled to a charge that would require lifelong registration as a sex offender based on his public defender's advice and failure to research the consequences of the plea because of his massive caseloads. In Louisiana, Houppert weaves together the compelling account of a man who served 27 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit alongside the immense physical and structural impact of Hurricane Katrina on an already vulnerable public defense system. A capital case in Georgia highlights the inadequacies of a system where a public defender, balancing nine open death penalty cases, unsuccessfully advocates for his mentally disabled client's life with limited resources.
Houppert's accounts are not all negative; the book focuses as much effort on identifying the champions of public defense, like attorney Carol Dee Huneke, who, after a spate of continuous trials, refused to go to trial in March 2004 unprepared and faced possible contempt charges to make sure her client got a fair trial, which she eventually won. And of course the author couldn't forget W. Fred Turner, the criminal defense attorney who in front of the same judge who denied Gideon's request for counsel, successfully advocated for Gideon's not guilty verdict after the landmark Supreme Court ruling.
Houppert's smart and raw account through the eyes of indigent defenders identifies the obvious flaws in the criminal justice system, and leaves us all the better for reading it - more informed, more critical and more inspired.
Amy Guerra is an attorney at the Alternate Defense Office in Fresno.