Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People's Justice

Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People's Justice

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by Karen Houppert
     
 

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On March 18, 1963, in one of its most significant legal decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that all defendants facing significant jail time have the constitutional right to a free attorney if they cannot afford their own. Fifty years later, 80 percent of criminal defendants are served by public defenders. In a book

Overview


On March 18, 1963, in one of its most significant legal decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that all defendants facing significant jail time have the constitutional right to a free attorney if they cannot afford their own. Fifty years later, 80 percent of criminal defendants are served by public defenders. In a book that combines the sweep of history with the intimate details of individual lives and legal cases, veteran reporter Karen Houppert movingly chronicles the stories of people in all parts of the country who have relied on Gideon’s promise.

There is the harrowing saga of a young man who is charged with involuntary vehicular homicide in Washington State, where overextended public defenders juggle impossible caseloads, forcing his defender to go to court to protect her own right to provide an adequate defense. In Florida, Houppert describes a public defender’s office, loaded with upward of seven hundred cases per attorney, and discovers the degree to which Clarence Earl Gideon’s promise is still unrealized. In New Orleans, she follows the case of a man imprisoned for twenty-seven years for a crime he didn’t commit, finding a public defense system already near collapse before Katrina and chronicling the harrowing months after the storm, during which overworked volunteers and students struggled to get the system working again. In Georgia, Houppert finds a mentally disabled man who is to be executed for murder, despite the best efforts of a dedicated but severely overworked and underfunded capital defender.

Half a century after Anthony Lewis’s award-winning Gideon’s Trumpet brought us the story of the court case that changed the American justice system, Chasing Gideon is a crucial book that provides essential reckoning of our attempts to implement this fundamental constitutional right.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Chasing Gideon is a wonderful book, its human stories gripping, its insight into how our law is made profound. Fifty years after the Gideon case was decided by the Supreme Court, the struggle to give poor criminal defendants a fair chance in court is still being fought—by lawyers, judges, and an inspired writer, Karen Houppert."
—Anthony Lewis, author of Gideon’s Trumpet

"Our country’s indigent defense crisis profoundly undermines the accuracy and fairness of our criminal justice system for defendants, victims, and the public alike. With clarity and power, Chasing Gideon demonstrates this crisis, the reasons behind it, and the ways to fix it. It is a must–read for anyone who cares about justice."
—Virginia Sloan, executive director, The Constitution Project

"The Gideon decision provides an essential mechanism for making the ideal of justice a reality, even for America’s most marginalized people. Author Karen Houppert compellingly examines the multitude of ways in which that mechanism remains under attack fifty years after it was established. Realizing the promise of Gideon often requires overcoming parsimony, political pressure, and the malignant indifference of government bodies and the public at large. Chasing Gideon illustrates the scope and seriousness of the indigent defense crisis nationally and makes the case that defending Gideon is essential and a true test of our nation’s commitment to liberty and justice for all."
—Anthony D. Romero, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union

"Having spent much of my career building a movement of public defenders across the South working to make Gideon’s promise a reality, I am grateful to Karen Houppert for helping readers understand just how far we are from realizing the right to adequate counsel for all. Chasing Gideon shines a bright light on the crisis of indigent defense and challenges us to finally live up to our most cherished democratic principles."
—Jonathan Rapping, associate professor, Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, and president and founder of Gideon’s Promise

"Houppert demonstrates that most public defenders are dedicated lawyers but face severe disadvantages due to overwhelming case loads, inadequate budgets for expert witnesses and the like, as well as the nature of the criminal justice system, which often emphasizes the desirability of a plea bargain instead of taking a case to a full trial by judge or jury…a well–researched and [well]–written investigation that shows the inadequacies in stark human terms rather than as an abstraction."
Kirkus Reviews

"Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed in Gideon v. Wainwright the right to free counsel to all defendants facing the possibility of imprisonment if they were unable to procure it themselves. Today, more than 80 percent of defendants are represented by public defenders. Here, Houppert (contributing writer, Washington Post Magazine; Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military—for Better or Worse) takes up the call of Anthony Lewis’s classic Gideon’s Trumpet and examines what has changed—and what has not—in the past five decades. What results is a stinging indictment of a system of indigent defense, a widespread failure that, the author claims, dooms the nation’s poor to being represented by insufficient counsel, unwise plea bargains, and wrongful convictions. Houppert examines public defense systems in Washington, Louisiana, and Georgia and follows illustrative cases: a teenager facing vehicular manslaughter charges, a prisoner who has served nearly 30 years for a crime he did not commit, and a defendant facing the death penalty.
VERDICT Fluent and fluid, Houppert’s book has all the urgency this subject demands and is a page-turner. Alternately thrilling and gut-riling, this book will grab and hold lovers of great nonfiction. Highly recommended."
Library Journal

Kirkus Reviews
A journalist explores the quality of indigent defense 50 years after Gideon v. Wainwright mandated adequate counsel for any person charged with a felony. Washington Post Magazine contributing writer Houppert (Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military--for Better or Worse, 2005, etc.) concedes that her book is an update on the nonfiction classic by Anthony Lewis, Gideon's Trumpet (1964). Houppert focuses on four defendants represented by appointed lawyers. One of those cases is that of Clarence Earl Gideon, who appealed for defense counsel despite his poverty after his 1961 arrest in Panama City, Fla. The other cases are more contemporary: teenager Sean Replogle in Spokane, Wash., after he was charged with vehicular homicide; Gregory Bright in New Orleans, where he was convicted of a 1975 murder he did not commit; and Rodney Young in Georgia, where he was sentenced to death despite his apparent mental retardation. Houppert demonstrates that most public defenders are dedicated lawyers but face severe disadvantages due to overwhelming case loads, inadequate budgets for expert witnesses and the like, as well as the nature of the criminal justice system, which often emphasizes the desirability of a plea bargain instead of taking a case to a full trial by judge or jury. While Lewis sounded optimistic about the development of high-quality defense representation for the indigent in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, Houppert is more pessimistic. Her research shows that defendants are regularly being denied their legal right to a strong lawyer with enough time and resources to function at the highest level. After all, indigent defendants do not have an organized lobbying group to compete for meager local, state and federal government resources, especially in recessionary eras. A well-researched and -written investigation that shows the inadequacies in stark human terms rather than as an abstraction.
Library Journal
Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed in Gideon v. Wainright the right to free counsel to all defendants facing the possibility of imprisonment if they were unable to procure it themselves. Today, more than 80 percent of defendants are represented by public defenders. Here, Houppert (contributing writer, Washington Post Magazine; Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military—for Better or Worse) takes up the call of Anthony Lewis's classic Gideon's Trumpet and examines what has changed—and what has not—in the past five decades. What results is a stinging indictment of a system of indigent defense, a widespread failure that, the author claims, dooms the nation's poor to being represented by insufficient counsel, unwise plea bargains, and wrongful convictions. Houppert examines public defense systems in Washington, Louisiana, and Georgia and follows illustrative cases: a teenager facing vehicular manslaughter charges, a prisoner who has served nearly 30 years for a crime he did not commit, and a defendant facing the death penalty. VERDICT Fluent and fluid, Houppert's book has all the urgency this subject demands and is a page-turner. Alternately thrilling and gut-riling, this book will grab and hold lovers of great nonfiction. Highly recommended. [For more on this title, see Editor's Picks on page 35.—Ed.]—Molly McArdle, Library Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781595588692
Publisher:
New Press, The
Publication date:
03/19/2013
Pages:
288
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

"Chasing Gideon is a wonderful book, its human stories gripping, its insight into how our law is made profound. Fifty years after the Gideon case was decided by the Supreme Court, the struggle to give poor criminal defendants a fair chance in court is still being fought—by lawyers, judges, and an inspired writer, Karen Houppert."
—Anthony Lewis, author of Gideon’s Trumpet

"Our country’s indigent defense crisis profoundly undermines the accuracy and fairness of our criminal justice system for defendants, victims, and the public alike. With clarity and power, Chasing Gideon demonstrates this crisis, the reasons behind it, and the ways to fix it. It is a must–read for anyone who cares about justice."
—Virginia Sloan, executive director, The Constitution Project

"The Gideon decision provides an essential mechanism for making the ideal of justice a reality, even for America’s most marginalized people. Author Karen Houppert compellingly examines the multitude of ways in which that mechanism remains under attack fifty years after it was established. Realizing the promise of Gideon often requires overcoming parsimony, political pressure, and the malignant indifference of government bodies and the public at large. Chasing Gideon illustrates the scope and seriousness of the indigent defense crisis nationally and makes the case that defending Gideon is essential and a true test of our nation’s commitment to liberty and justice for all."
—Anthony D. Romero, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union

"Having spent much of my career building a movement of public defenders across the South working to make Gideon’s promise a reality, I am grateful to Karen Houppert for helping readers understand just how far we are from realizing the right to adequate counsel for all. Chasing Gideon shines a bright light on the crisis of indigent defense and challenges us to finally live up to our most cherished democratic principles."
—Jonathan Rapping, associate professor, Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, and president and founder of Gideon’s Promise

"Houppert demonstrates that most public defenders are dedicated lawyers but face severe disadvantages due to overwhelming case loads, inadequate budgets for expert witnesses and the like, as well as the nature of the criminal justice system, which often emphasizes the desirability of a plea bargain instead of taking a case to a full trial by judge or jury…a well–researched and [well]–written investigation that shows the inadequacies in stark human terms rather than as an abstraction."
Kirkus Reviews

"Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed in Gideon v. Wainwright the right to free counsel to all defendants facing the possibility of imprisonment if they were unable to procure it themselves. Today, more than 80 percent of defendants are represented by public defenders. Here, Houppert (contributing writer, Washington Post Magazine; Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military—for Better or Worse) takes up the call of Anthony Lewis’s classic Gideon’s Trumpet and examines what has changed—and what has not—in the past five decades. What results is a stinging indictment of a system of indigent defense, a widespread failure that, the author claims, dooms the nation’s poor to being represented by insufficient counsel, unwise plea bargains, and wrongful convictions. Houppert examines public defense systems in Washington, Louisiana, and Georgia and follows illustrative cases: a teenager facing vehicular manslaughter charges, a prisoner who has served nearly 30 years for a crime he did not commit, and a defendant facing the death penalty.
VERDICT Fluent and fluid, Houppert’s book has all the urgency this subject demands and is a page-turner. Alternately thrilling and gut-riling, this book will grab and hold lovers of great nonfiction. Highly recommended."
Library Journal

Meet the Author


Karen Houppert was a contributing writer at the Washington Post Magazine for many years. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Newsday, the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Village Voice, Salon, and many other publications. She is the author of two other books: Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military—for Better or Worse and The Curse: Confronting the Last Taboo, Menstruation. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she teaches in the MA in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University and is on the journalism faculty of Morgan State University.

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Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People's Justice 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
JYKWA More than 1 year ago
We'd like to believe that justice is blind, but unfortunately that isn't quite the case for those too poor to afford good defense attorneys.  Ms. Houppert does a great job outlining the perfect storm created by budget cuts, indifferent public, and overworked public defenders and how it disproportionately affects the poor. Seamlessly weaving historical facts - tracing all the way back to Clarence Earl Gideon, whose case started the public defender system - with individual cases, she makes a good case for the need to reform the public defense system as it stands today.