With verve and insider know-how, a young lawyer reveals his outrageous and heartbreaking long day's journey into night court.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||6.34(w) x 9.62(h) x 1.00(d)|
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IndefensibleOne Lawyer's Journey into the Inferno of American Justice
By David Feige
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2006 David Feige
All right reserved.
I WOKE UP DREAMING. OF ANGELO TONA.
Judge Tona made me cry.
King of the calendar, dean of dispositions, Tona could do a hundred cases in a single night without breaking a sweat. He rarely listened to lawyers and barely glanced at the people he processed like so much Spam. "Three days' community service," he'd bark without looking up. Clients had about ten seconds to decide. "Fifteen days' jail. You want it, yes or no?" he'd bellow. There wasn't much bargaining room.
Tona was an equal-opportunity bully: if he didn't like a prosecutor's offer, he'd release the defendant; if he thought defense counsel greedy, he'd jail the client. But this wasn't about balance or equity. Tona's courtroom was about power, his power, pure and simple.
This was a lesson I learned the hard way. I had been a public defender for less than a year.
It was late at night, and the dingy seventh-floor courtroom was packed with anxious faces, watching as their loved ones were paraded before Judge Tona. I don't remember the client's name anymore, nor do I remember what possessed me to argue with Tona. In retrospect, I'm sure I thought my client was getting screwed. After all, mostpeople got a raw deal in Tona's court. The charges were certainly minor, the defendant likely half decent, at least.
Maybe it was the hour-it had to be 11:00 P.M. or so. Because of the huge number of cases, night court routinely ran into the wee hours of the morning. "Legal Aid Society, by David Feige," I announced as I had a dozen times already that night. Then, in the standard formula used in every arraignment to get things moving along, I said, "Waive the reading but not the rights." This meant we were fine with skipping the recitation of the charges, but that didn't mean we were giving up any other procedural or substantive rights the client might have.
"No offer here, Judge," the assistant DA replied.
"Okay," said Tona. "Bail is set in the amount of five hundred dollars, cash or bond."
"Huh?" I exclaimed. The way the process worked was that the prosecutor made his request and the defense got a chance to respond. I hadn't yet opened my mouth to make a bail argument, and Tona was moving on.
"Next case, please," Tona said matter-of-factly.
"B-but, Judge!" I stammered. "I didn't get to ... uhhh ... I'm asking you to release my client on his own recognizance."
From the bench: "Be. Quiet. Mr. Feige."
"Your Honor! My client is a high school graduate, he's working full-time, and -"
"I said, next case please." Tona couldn't have been cooler.
"His mother is here, in court." I was getting frantic. As far as I was concerned, this was clearly a kid who shouldn't be going to jail-a place of violence and depredation, a place where even a single night in a cell risked robbery, mayhem, or even prison rape.
"One more word from you, Mr. Feige, and bail is going up. One hundred dollars a word."
"Your Honor!" I cried.
"Seven hundred dollars!" he said.
"You can't do that!"
My mind was racing; I didn't know what to do. My client looked stunned. A uniformed court officer handcuffed him and led him toward the back of the courtroom, through the door that led to the largest penal colony in the world-Rikers Island.
I was panicking.
"Judge, I'm begging you. Please ... my client deserves to be released. He's a college-bound kid. He'll come back to court. He's never been arrested before, and he has family here ... please ..., Judge!"
Tona looked down at me with bovine placidity. "Bail is twenty- five hundred dollars, cash or bond. Anything else, Mr. Feige?"
I was trembling. I couldn't believe it. By pushing the bail amount beyond anything my poor client could hope to post, I had effectively argued him into jail. I felt my forehead start to flush; tears welled up in my eyes. The bridge officer called the next case. I turned to the back of the courtroom and, spying the doors, ran.
It's no wonder that Tona haunts my dreams-his bulbous, scowling face cast as the personification of my powerlessness-and no wonder it's him I'm chasing, swimming to the surface of consciousness on a cold morning ten years later when, despite my passion for criminal defense work, I would relish a little extra time in bed.
* * *
I like the cold-for personal and professional reasons. On cold nights, people stay off the street corners; less corner traffic means fewer arrests, and fewer arrests mean a lighter arraignment load. A light night in arraignments means a little dip in a public defender's caseload-a moment of respite in a churning sea of relentless criminality. All year long, I sleep with the window open, hoping the air drifting in might signal a frost.
The radio mumbles about Iraq as I finally shake off sleep. The news of the moment: two guys stabbed and a little girl caught in a cross-fire shooting. My ears perk up, but both turn out to be in Brooklyn. No news at all from the Bronx. The sky is overcast, a portent of the snow forecast for later in the week. That would be nice.
My own law-breaking this morning involves having drilled out the water regulator in my showerhead-a crime for which I feel no remorse whatsoever. Every day I can look forward to about six minutes of illegal, superheated bliss. In the shower, I map out the day's schedule, trying to imagine which clients will show up on time, which judges I have already pissed off during the week, which courtrooms are going to be glacially slow. When on trial, I visualize my cross-examination, whittling down my important questions to their spare, eviscerating essence. Some of my best summations have been devised or delivered amid the steam and scald. Mickey Richards, Omar Chavez, Juan Torres, and Steven Smith: all owe their freedom in some small measure to my shower inspiration. And it's always been like that: even back when I couldn't wait to get to work, couldn't stand being away from the office and the action, I never passed up my contemplative shower moments. Indeed, they were the only moments of luxury back when I got into all this.
* * *
Oddly, for someone who is, or on occasion has been called, a big, self-righteous blowhard, I did not get my start in the public-defender business for righteous reasons. Really it was an accident.
It was in the spring of 1985. I was a sophomore in college. And while most of my classmates had summer plans long since settled, I had been too preoccupied eating barbecued beef and trying hard to seduce the woman who won the University of Chicago's prize for best BA paper in English to bother planning my summer. Of course, the longer I waited, the more likely it seemed that somehow the decision would be made for me rather than by me.
Waiting out an April shower, an overstuffed sandwich safely in my stomach, I ducked one afternoon into the damp stone building that housed the university's career and placement office. Justice couldn't have been further from my mind, but as I flipped through the postings "Criminal Defense Investigator Wanted" caught my eye. I scanned down the page ... investigating criminal cases ... finding witnesses, serving subpoenas ... visiting crime scenes. It all sounded cool to me. And rather than high-toned rhetoric about grade point average, self-motivation, and all the rest of the corporate nonsense, this ad sought people who were adventurous and had good communication skills. The Washington, DC, Public Defender Service, as it turned out, was looking not for brilliant students, but for people who could talk, drive, and take chances, and were willing to work for free. It had my name written all over it. I promptly lined up a public-interest summer grant and fired off an application.
The DC PDS investigator internship was exactly as advertised, and within a week I found myself wandering around southeast DC looking for a guy named Slim who had supposedly witnessed a robbery. It was a disaster. Alabama Avenue in the mid-1980s might as well have run through Alabama itself. It was rural poverty writ urban-as if the tumbledown homes of the Deep South had been shoved together by some huge earthmover. There were low concrete bunkhouses with doors swinging from one hinge, playgrounds filled with dust or mud depending on when it had rained last, and people everywhere, crowding the little cement slabs that served as ground-level verandas, sitting on decaying chairs or plastic milk crates, huddling around card tables chockablock with dominoes, smoking, drinking, and fanning themselves in the humid summer sun.
I stood out.
It wasn't just because I was white, though that certainly helped, but also because I had the stiff walk of the neophyte and the nervous look of the out-of-place kid that I actually was. No one would give me the time of day. Good luck finding Slim.
Nevertheless, as the summer wore on I began to take to the work. It was endlessly fascinating, exposing me to a world I had never really known-a world where people lived by street names, where drug commerce and violence lived cheek by jowl with working families and hopscotching children, where the first assumption was that I was a cop; the second, a rich junkie looking for a fix; the third, a parole officer; and beyond that the hopped-up kids of Alabama Avenue had no idea what to make of me. In time, as I adjusted to the expectations of Southeast, I began to both love it and understand it. By the middle of the summer I'd learned how to track down witnesses, ask questions, and dig up information that would prove useful in the rapes and murders and robberies I was investigating. I'd learned every street and alley in the Quadrant, and could talk my way into almost any house. And most every night I brought home the fruits of my investigations to the lawyers I worked for-hard-charging, dedicated defenders whose passion for their work inspired me every day to find more, and to dig deeper.
My time in DC transformed me. It turned a college kid's diffuse sense of right and wrong into a focused and rigid moral framework. That first exposure-to the criminal justice system, to poverty, and to the macabre hierarchy of criminal defense lawyers-radically altered the next two decades of my life. It gave me a purpose.
Law school was, for the most part, full of overindulged kids looking to become lawyers either to please daddy or to bring home the big paycheck. Worse, with L.A. Law sexing up corporate work every week (Arnie Becker got laid twice a show), the fetid focus of law school life became who could get a job at the fanciest firm. This only compounded the pathological competitiveness of the entire law school experience.
I didn't bother to talk to law firms during my first year. I knew exactly where I was headed for the summer: back to the streets of DC and the Public Defender Service. My second summer, though, was different. My dad, who dreamed of telling his friends about how his son was going to work for a Wall Street law firm, argued stridently that before I went off to spend (read: "waste") my life being a public defender, I should at least explore the opportunity costs.
And that's what I did: Dewey Ballantine is about as fancy and white-shoe as a law firm can be. It also had the distinction, in 1990, of being among the highest-paying law firms in the country. That summer, from my aerie on the forty-fifth floor with the commanding view of midtown Manhattan, I got my first taste of what "legitimate" success felt like-and it felt good. Plied with expensive food and name-brand liquor, I spent a summer wrestling with my identity as I shuttled between Wall Street, Broadway shows, and Yankee games. It's not bad being treated like a king. And as it turned out, I didn't mind making an ocean of money. But the vertiginous experience of being a bit player in the big world of commerce never quite sat right. Partly it was my insufferable lack of deference, partly it was my defiant streak, and partly it was just because, looking around the firm at my high-powered colleagues, with their sophisticated airs and entitled perspective, all I saw were slaves.
In Discipline and Punish, the brilliant meditation on the history of penology, Michel Foucault suggests that the more advanced a society is, the more subtle the modes and means of penal control. If a summer at Dewey Ballantine showed me anything, it was just how controlling an advanced society like a law firm could be and how brilliantly, brutally subtle penal control could be. Almost every day, one or another of my bright-eyed colleagues would rush into my office detailing in a barely controlled whisper what partner had assigned what task to what associate, who had gone where, and whose fortunes were rising and whose were falling. It was as if we were back in junior high school, except that instead of gossiping about whether Nadjia Neherniak really made out with Mark Burnett, we spent every minute trying to ensure that no one else was making corporate inroads any faster or more effectively than anyone else. To keep tabs on this, summer associates spent an inordinate amount of energy considering how much "face time" was optimal-"face time" being time spent in the office irrespective of whether or not one had work to do.
In between visits to client-subsidized shrimp bowls, Broadway shows, and box seats at ball games, I reflected on the meaning of the experience. I concluded that though it was undeniably tasty and lucrative, to me it was all lifestyle and no life.
It was that realization that animated my stride in November of 1990 as I walked into the offices of the Criminal Defense Division of the Legal Aid Society of New York City and announced, with more confidence than I felt, that I was there for an interview.
"Second or third?"
The woman behind the desk glanced up for a fraction of a second, taking my measure with practiced disdain. The question completely puzzled me, and at first I wasn't even sure what she was talking about.
"There are three?" I asked, my too-cool-for-school laconic delivery quickly giving way to a more familiar boyhood schoolyard panic.
"Yeah ... three," said the receptionist, not at all impressed with my performance so far. "Who did you interview with on campus?"
"Ahhhh ..." I stalled. "I don't think you come to Wisconsin. I just sent in a letter and resume and was told to show up today."
This unusual way of doing things seemed to flummox her, but after taking my name, motioning me to a chair, and muttering into a telephone for a few seconds, she managed to say what I'd hoped to hear at the beginning of our conversation: "Someone will be right with you."
The "someone" quickly morphed into four people, who led me into a nondescript room and mercilessly fired contentious questions at me for forty-five minutes. It was utterly unlike the law firm interviews, which seemed to be structured around the idea that no question was too stupid and no topic too inane to elicit a warm smile and a firm handshake. The people around the table (half of them in jeans) seemed to suggest that I had a lotta gall comin' in to their office on Park Row in New York City and asking them for a job. Who the hell was I? each one of them wanted to know.
It was, in short, my kind of interview. And sitting there in the cramped room stuffed with too many chairs and a table two sizes too big, staring out a window that looked out into a sooty airshaft, I understood, implicitly, that this was my home and these were my people.
"Here," said one of my interlocutors, pushing a set of stapled papers across the table at me like a detective presenting a prepared confession. "We'd like to have you back for a second interview. You'll need to deliver a summation. This is the fact pattern."
Excerpted from Indefensible by David Feige Copyright © 2006 by David Feige. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you are related to the author, you will like this book because all David Feige talks about is how great David Feige is and how bad everyone else is. Four or five years in the Bronx does not make him an expert on the criminal justice system, but rather a poser looking for a book to write to get his next grant.
David Feige's 'Indefensible' will infuriate those who believe that society should lock up all the criminals and throw away the key. Feige was a public defender in New York City for over a decade, and he actually liked his job. In fact, he cared so much about his clients that if he believed that he let them down in any way, he reproached himself mercilessly. Feige did everything in his power to get the men and women who entrusted their future to him the best deals possible, whether or not they were guilty. He listened to their side of the story, tried to provide the social services they needed, and always treated them with respect. Does this make David Feige a bleeding heart liberal? Some may think so, but others might see him as person of compassion, pragmatism, and strong feelings about the meaning of justice. This book is an account of a day in the life of a public defender in the Bronx Criminal Courthouse. Surprisingly, although Feige changes the names of his clients, he reveals the identities of judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers. Since Feige openly criticizes some of these officers of the court for incompetence, unfairness, and unethical behavior, it took courage for him to name names. Feige's client list included rapists, drug dealers, murderers, and prostitutes. Yet he judged each case on its own merits, and never treated his clients like cogs in an assembly line. For example, when Feige conferred with a woman named Cassandra, whom he eventually got to know over a period of years, he said, 'There are people you meet in my job who are so helpless, so hopeless, and so sad that it slices your heart up....' Cassandra was a homeless and suicidal drug addict. Although she was overweight, unkempt, and unreliable, David did everything in his power to help her. Whether he defended an innocent bystander wrongfully accused of murder, a woman who killed her abusive husband, or a convicted rapist charged with homicide, Feige never functioned on autopilot. He ran around day and night, meeting with clients, making phone calls, talking to judges and other lawyers, grabbing fast food, and sleeping for a few hours whenever possible. As he got older, he shared his valuable knowledge and experience with the younger lawyers in his office. One of the highest compliments I can pay this book is that it reads like a novel. Feige's powerful descriptive writing and hilarious anecdotes beautifully evoke the teeming and chaotic atmosphere of the Bronx Criminal Courthouse, and the author gives us an incisive portrait of law and order, New York style. He demonstrates that although there are many savvy and responsible lawyers, there are also those who are lazy and indifferent. In addition, although many judges are impartial, efficient, and evenhanded, others are uncaring, sadistic, and misguided. To keep from getting burned out as a result of his high pressure job, David heeded the sound advice he received from Paula Deutsch, a 'hard-drinking brilliant true believer.' She said, 'Thing is, Feige, you gotta lawyer for you.' The satisfaction that a public defender receives is not gratitude from his clients, which is rarely forthcoming. It's certainly not a high salary, fancy perks, and expense account lunches. What attorneys like David Feige know is that the job of a public defender is a special calling, since good PDs keep the judges and district attorneys from running roughshod over the rights of indigent defendants. If not for attorneys like David Feige, our criminal justice system would be even more inefficient, corrupt, and warped than it already is.
Instead of focusing on the problems in the court system, Feige spends his book detailing grudges. It's too bad, because there is a lot to write about beyond a judge or prosecutor who is personally unpleasant. Try Courtroom 302 -- it's masterful in all the ways that Indefensible doesn't make it.
Indefensible has already stirred considerable controversy among those whose points of view have been advanced or attacked by Feige¿s well written and easily read expose¿ of the way ¿justice¿ is meted out for those who cannot afford the luxury of fair and thorough consideration by the judicial system. Some accuse the author of ¿fabrication¿ while others applaud him for ¿telling it like it is.¿ The truth is that most of the readers who have reviewed the book have done little more than air their own biases with little thought of anything else. Whether you embrace or reject the premise offered by this author, he will make you think. In that, Feige has accomplished what only the best authors achieve. In the process, you will experience a great read.
Mr. Feige had a great opportunity to talk about the injustices and hardships a public defender faces on a daily basis. Instead, he seeks to make himself look better by putting down everyone around him - judges, Assistant DAs and even other defense attorneys. This man attacks other attorneys and judges in the Bronx system with such venom, he completely belittles the few valid points he may have in the book. It also makes me think these attacks were more personal and vindictive than he wants his readers to believe. Mr. Feige takes a kernel of truth and turns it into a bushel of propaganda. He appears to take a 'story', leave out the parts that make him look bad and/or don't prove his point, and dramatize the parts he thinks serve his objective. Also, it appear many of the situations he describes border on unethical - ie. giving verbatim accounts of a conversation between a client and another lawyer (what happened to attorney/client privilege?) talking about entering an unethical agreement with a judge because he believes the judge is guaranteeing him a not guilty verdict before the judge even hears the evidence, and then, when the judge finds the client guilty, is upset with the judge for being an officer of the court and maintaining his impartiality enough to judge the case on the facts. Not to mention the gleeful pride with which he describes his efforts getting clearly guilty people aquitted of all charges. Where is the compassion for the victim of these crimes? Where is the compassion for the potential future victims? No one is saying that people who commit crimes are awful people who should be locked away forever. No one is saying that Mr. Feige's job is easy. And no one is belittling the plight of the public defender. But the book is so obsessed with making everyone else look 'evil' that it misses the point.