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

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

by Karen Houppert


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First published to mark the fifty-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, which guaranteed the right to legal counsel for all criminal defendants, Chasing Gideon is “a hugely important book” (New York Law Journal) that gives us a visceral, unforgettable experience of our systemic failure to fulfill this basic constitutional right. Written in the tradition of Gideon’s Trumpet, by the late Anthony Lewis, this is “a book of nightmares,” as Leonard Pitts wrote in the Miami Herald, because it shows that the “‘justice system’ too often produces the opposite of what its name suggests, particularly for its most vulnerable constituents.”

Following its publication, Chasing Gideon, which ACLU director Anthony Romero said “illustrates the scope and seriousness of the indigent defense crisis,” became an integral part of a growing national conversation about how to reform indigent defense in America, coordinated with an HBO documentary and a website to promote the book and the movie. The effort spread news about Chasing Gideon directly to public defenders offices nationwide and drove a national conversation about what Eric Holder called the “shameful state of affairs” of indigent defense (in the Washington Post).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620970263
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 02/03/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Karen Houppert has written for the Washington Post Magazine, The Nation, Newsday, the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Village Voice, Salon, and many other publications. She is the author of Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military—For Better or Worse and The Cure: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo—Menstruation. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she teaches at Johns Hopkins University and at Morgan State University.

Read an Excerpt


DUE PROCESS THEATER: A Case of Vehicular Homicide

Sean Replogle was a blond, rail-thin senior in high school when he turned eighteen on September 16, 2001. He describes himself as a "happy-go-lucky kid" with a lot of friends. Aside from catching it for occasionally skipping, he had never been in trouble at school. He'd certainly never been in trouble with the law. Indeed, it had been his wish since childhood to work in law enforcement; he hoped to be a cop someday. For now, though, he was flipping burgers at McDonald's after school. He worked hard and saved his wages. A few weeks after his eighteenth birthday, he used the $1,700 he had accumulated to buy a thirteen-year-old red Mustang.

His dad, Chuck Replogle, was proud of the fact that Sean had earned the money for his own car. And, in any case, he could not have helped. Chuck Replogle was a widower barely scraping by financially. He taught in a before- and after-school program at a local public elementary school. By working an early morning shift at the school, doing some carpentry in the afternoons, and then returning for a second shift at the school in the afternoons, he had been able to support Sean and his younger sister. Years ago, he made better money as a journeyman carpenter. But his wife took ill when Sean was very young. Disease sucked the life out of her; the hospitals sucked the savings out of the family's bank account. She died when Sean was a preschooler. Then Chuck was injured on the job and had to find new, less physically demanding work. He loved his work with children, but his meager salary certainly precluded buying a car for his teenage son.

He couldn't even afford to help Sean cover insurance costs for the car. In fact, when Chuck took his son to the insurance office shortly after Sean bought the car and the agent changed the quote he'd given over the phone — upping the amount by $40 due to Chuck's credit rating — they were stuck. Sean was paying for the insurance from his McDonald's earnings and he didn't have the extra money either. He would get his paycheck the next day, Sean told the agent, and come back to settle things.

That, anyway, was the plan.

McDonald's paid Sean on Friday. On Saturday, the boy drove his new Mustang with a friend to the Moneytree to cash their respective checks. On the way home, Sean traveled the same route he had taken to his house hundreds of times before, driving his father's car. He turned onto Garland, a two-way street that ran ruler straight through a mixed-use neighborhood. It cut past a post office, past a slew of squat, sixties-era single-story ranches with flat green patches of lawn and cement drives, past the campers and faux-barn sheds and misshapen shrubs that distinguished the otherwise identical homes, past the Garland Avenue Alliance Church, past the low-slung brick Spokane Guild School & Neuromuscular Center. As Sean approached a cross street, he noticed a Toyota inching out beyond the stop sign to make a left turn. Sean had the right of way and, he says, assumed that the car would see him and brake. It did not.

Sean tried to stop. As the Toyota slid into the intersection directly in front of him, Sean slammed on the brakes. His friend yelled. Both wrenched the wheel. The brakes froze. Tires screeched. Time slowed — the sound of metal eating metal — and then sped. After clipping the end of the Toyota, the Mustang careened away. The two cars came to a stop on opposite sides of the street. Clambering out, Sean tore across Garland and found himself staring into the 1997 Toyota Camry at a woman whose head had shattered the window and was covered in blood.

Sean couldn't think. "Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God," he moaned.

The woman, Judy Rodeen, was unconscious. ... Or dead.

Life changes in an instant. For Sean Replogle, Judy Rodeen, and Spokane public defender Carol Dee Huneke, that moment occurred at 3:51 P.M. on October 20, 2001, when their lives inexplicably converged on the corner of the city's Garland and Belt streets. The consequences of the car crash and the ensuing trial would spin out over the decade, coincidentally paralleling the story of another local boy in trouble with the law, a twelve-year-old accused of sexually molesting a neighbor child, whose overworked lawyer would make decisions about the nature of the boy's representation that would spark radical reforms in the way public defenders work in the state of Washington. Sean's careening car set in motion a series of events that would unfurl over many years: one person died; a teen's life was ruined; a lawyer was radicalized and her career was destroyed; a working family was pushed deep into $450,000 debt; taxpayers footed tens of thousands of dollars in court-affiliated costs; and a victim's family was shattered, with a trial bringing little consolation. Meanwhile, justice for the poor in Spokane County, Grant County, Washington State, and the nation was put under the microscope.

On this fine October day in 2001, Judy Rodeen had been sipping a cup of coffee with her elderly parents at the Starbucks in Spokane's Five Mile Shopping Center as she had done every Saturday afternoon at 3 o'clock for the past four years. Her mother and father were getting up in years — her dad, Lowell Stack, was 85; her mom, Frances Stack, was 83 and had Alzheimer's. Judy, who lived just up the street, kept a close eye on them.

After coffee, the three of them climbed back into Lowell Stack's 1997 Toyota Camry and started home, taking a route that Lowell Stack, too, had driven hundreds of times before as he returned from the shopping center. He traveled down North Belt Street, past Shadle Park, past the ball fields, past the Messiah Lutheran Church, past the Second Church of Christ, Scientists, past the brown-, tan-, and white-brick ranch homes. As they approached Garland Street, Judy recalls, her parents looked to the right and left in unison. "That was just something they had done all their time together when riding in a car," she says. "And then we proceeded straight across Garland onto Belt."

That much, Judy remembers. After that, things get blurry.

"The only part in my mind that I thought I saw was the two headlights on the car [coming toward us]. And I don't remember anything from then on. I don't even know if that was real or in my mind or not. It ... I can't recall it."

Four months after the accident, an insurance investigator would push her: "Do you have any recollection of seeing the Mustang as it was maybe a block away or half a block away?" the investigator pushed.

"No, I really can't say that. I just can't bring anything ..."

"Do you have any recollection as to the speed of the Mustang?"


"Did you hear any sound of the engine of the other vehicle, the Mustang?"

"No, I don't even remember the crash. ... My first recollection was when the ambulance were [sic] there and they were. ... I was on the board. They evidently had gotten me out of the car. That was my first recollection, of coming to."

"Did you hear anything said by the driver of the Mustang at any time?"


"I want to also ask you if you have any recollection at the impact. Were you belted in?"


A senior in high school, money in his pocket, a new Mustang, cruising the streets of Spokane, Sean Replogle, like all eighteen-year-olds, believed himself so invincible that he didn't even wear a seatbelt that afternoon in October 2001.

Since then, he has parsed this moment over and over, trying to make sense of it — possibly trying to alter the course of events. "Me and Chuck weren't buckled up," Sean says today, toggling between past and present tense, between putting this behind him and reliving it. "We're stupid eighteen-year-olds." The old man driving the Toyota heads right into the intersection. "He never looks over," Sean says. "I look over at Chuck for a split second and say to him, 'Do they not see me?' I slam on the brakes. At the last second I see them notice me." But it is too late.

After the crash, Sean couldn't get out of his wrecked car. "I panicked, trying to open the door and I couldn't." He yelled at his friend Chuck to get out and then clambered over the passenger seat. "I get out, run over to their car. It was like something out of a horror scene. The driver was dazed and confused. I say, 'Are you okay?' He wouldn't answer. Couldn't answer."

Then Sean saw the woman in the backseat with her head through the glass. "I thought she was dead."

Someone called an ambulance — no one recalls who it was. EMTs arrived within minutes. They moved the elderly driver of the Toyota, Lowell Stack, from the car. Stack, according to witnesses, was bleeding from the head and excoriated himself, repeating "Oh, my God. Oh, my God. What have I done?" Asked if he was okay, he nodded. "I think I'm alright." But he was worried about his daughter in the backseat: "How's Judy?"

Officer Erin Raleigh, one of the first cops on the scene, spoke to Sean. "Sean appeared to have been crying and was currently teary eyed and very upset at the time," Raleigh wrote in a contemporaneous report. "Sean told me he was driving his Mustang when the collision occurred. Sean explained to me he was driving westbound on Garland and was travelling 'a little fast,' but stated he never made it out of second gear. ... Sean told me he was just worried about the other people involved in the collision, to make sure they were ok." Another officer on the scene, Bryan Grenon, put it differently in his report: "Replogle appeared to be distraught and somewhat distant." Another witness, Yvonne Belcourt, who'd been driving the car behind him and was furious at "the speed of this child," ascribed different motives: "After the wreck, the only thing I remember is jumping out of the car, screaming at the kid. ... And then I remember him jumping up and down screaming, 'Oh, God, oh, God,' and I swore at him. I said, 'What the f — do you think you're doing?' Only I didn't say 'F,' I said the bad word. I'm not normally a swearer. ... I don't remember what else he said. I wasn't concerned about him. I was concerned about the old people in the car." (With echoes of Albert Camus's L'Étranger, in which the protagonist's behavior after his mother's death was studied and recast as indicative of his guilty conscience, Sean's affect at the scene would later be dissected, analyzed, characterized, and re-characterized as lawyers and witnesses searched for telltale signs of guilt or innocence.)

Officer Raleigh asked about insurance and Sean admitted he had none. Raleigh went to speak with Officer Grenon about the folks in the other car. "Officer Grenon stated that all three motorists were going to be transported to Providence Holy Family Hospital Emergency to be treated for their injuries. Grenon stated none of the parties in the vehicle had sustained life-threatening injuries, but did need to be viewed by the medical staff at the hospital to be treated." Another cop measured skid marks from both vehicles and took photographs of the scene.

Sean was "pretty freaked out" but remembers a cop comforting him, assuring him that the family in the Toyota was okay. He went home thinking the others would be all right, that he himself was "stupid for speeding," and that cops would be ticketing the Toyota's driver "for blowing a stop sign." Sean found out the Stack family's address and sent a Hallmark card, telling them how sorry he was.

Later that evening, at 9:30 P.M., Officer Raleigh noted in his written report that the cop measuring skid marks had done his calculations and determined the speed; Sean had been going 45 mph prior to impact, he said. The speed limit was 30 mph.

The next day, Officer Raleigh went by the Replogles' house and gave Sean a ticket for reckless driving and issued a Notice of Infraction for Liability Insurance Required. "I released Sean on his signature promising to contact the court within 15 days," Officer Raleigh noted.

On Monday, Sean went to school but felt terrible. Judy Rodeen, the woman in the backseat of the car, turned out to be the office manager at his high school. "She was the main office lady, so the office people all hated me after that," Sean said. Everyone at school knew what had happened. He walked down the halls. People stared. Pointed. He was a monster.

Doctors put fifteen staples in Judy Rodeen's left ear and head, five stitches near her left eye, and treated her for pain in the left side of her body. Judy's mother, Frances Stack, suffered cervical injuries, contusions, and lacerations. After examining Lowell Stack and running some tests and x-rays, an emergency room doctor decided he needed surgery to treat his wounds. He hospitalized the elderly man and operated immediately.

Then, seven days after the accident, Lowell Stack took a turn for the worse. He rapidly deteriorated. At 6 P.M. on October 28, eight days after the accident, Lowell Stack died in the hospital. The preliminary cause of death was "from complications arising out of the injuries sustained in the crash," a police report noted. Sean would learn about the death in a roundabout way. A friend of his who worked as a student assistant in the high school office overheard a conversation among staffers and slipped out to find Sean. Sean was sitting in class when his friend motioned him out into the hall. "The guy died, dude," his friend said. "They're all talking about it in the office."

Horrified, Sean turned, walked out of school, and went home. "Oh, my God!" he recalls thinking. "What the heck? Oh, my God!"

Two days later, the police showed up at the door to the Replogles' home. "I was in my bedroom playing video games with my friend," Sean says. "Dad came in my room and said there are a couple police officers here that need to talk to you."

Corporal Tom Sahlberg broke the news. "I ... advised him that the #2 driver had passed away, and now he was involved in much more serious charges that included Veh[icular] Homicide and Assault," Sahlberg wrote in his official report." He was fully cooperative and asked how the Stack family was doing, and that he had sent them a card. In addition, he had set up a court date for the Reckless Driving citation, which I advised him had been dismissed because of the more serious charges now pending. ... I told him to be careful answering any official questions until he had an attorney, but that he was free to contact me with any questions he had."

Sean didn't know what to say. "I'm so sad that this person had to die," he thought. "But this was an accident." It was hard for Sean to comprehend that he was being charged with murder. As his father stood beside him, Sean listened, trying to make sense of what the cops were saying. Sahlberg told Sean that he would be back to formally arrest and book him in a few days.

Then, two days later, police arrived at the house with a minivan, put cuffs on Sean, and took him downtown to book him. He was released on his own recognizance — but he was terrified. How would he survive prison? he wondered. What would they do to him — a skinny kid who had no idea how to defend himself? Who played video games and cried when he was in a car accident? What would happen to him? How could he mentally or physically prepare for life behind bars?

Like many Americans, neither Sean nor his family had given much thought to "public defenders" or "indigent defense" prior to his car accident. Likely the terms were entirely unfamiliar to them. 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.

But they were about to get a lesson, via immersion in the criminal justice system. Sean was assigned an attorney, Carol Dee Huneke. This was a small stroke of luck in a slew of bad news.

When Huneke first met Sean Replogle in October 2001, she had been working as a Spokane County public defender since 1998 (with earlier stints as a public defender in western Washington and then Idaho). At thirty-three, she was the mother of a one-year-old and the wife of a prominent federal public defender, Roger Peven.

She never intended to be a public defender — or even a lawyer for that matter. The way she describes it, she was a rolling stone who washed up on the shores of a public defender's office in western Washington and discovered that "these were her people" and she loved the work. Born and raised in Texas, she went to the University of Texas School of Law because she couldn't think of anything better to do after college.

She didn't love it. And, after interning one summer for Texaco's legal department, she liked it even less. She decided to continue with law school since she'd already attended for a year. But since she had no intention of ever practicing law, she didn't bother enrolling in any practical courses. Instead, she took an eclectic assortment of classes on topics that interested her, like Ethics, Women and the Law, and Maritime Law. (Huneke's experience is fairly typical; a 2008 study by the Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education reported that only 2 percent of law schools require practical clinical training for students.)


Excerpted from "Chasing Gideon"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Karen Houppert.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction ix

Chapter 1 Due Process Theater: A Case of Vehicular Homicide 1

Chapter 2 "I Have No Counsel": The Man Behind Gideon v. Wainwright 57

Chapter 3 A Perfect Storm: Looking for Justice in New Orleans 103

Chapter 4 Death in Georgia: A Capital Offense 179

Conclusion 249

Afterword David J. Carroll 253

Acknowledgments 261

American Bar Association's Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System by the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants 263

Notes 265

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

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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.