By Karen Houppert, New Press, New York, N.Y., 304 pages, $26.95
March 18 marked the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court case that established that the Sixth Amendment guarantees to every criminal defendant in a felony trial the right to a lawyer.
Clarence Earl Gideon’s story was originally chronicled in New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis’ award-winning book, "Gideon’s Trumpet," which recounts Gideon’s request for a lawyer to help him fight his burglary charge stemming from an incident at a pool hall in Panama City, Fla., in 1961.
The story has captivated the minds of Americans for half a century; many remain in awe of the determination of an uneducated citizen who spent his life in and out of jail and eventually hand wrote his petition to the Supreme Court stating, "It makes no difference how old I am or what color I am or what church I belong too if any. The question is I did not get a fair trial."
Over the following half century since the holding in Gideon, the U.S. Supreme Court has incrementally extended the right to legal representation to other circumstances: during the first stage of the appeals process; in misdemeanor cases where a defendant can be jailed; to cases where a trial judge does not intend to impose a jail sentence right away, such as a suspended sentence case; and most recently in the plea-bargaining process.
Despite this progress, the legal community and the nation are celebrating this landmark ruling’s 50th anniversary with bittersweet acknowledgement of a constitutional promise that remains largely unfulfilled. Today, there is a huge disparity between the far-reaching principle of Gideon’s holding and the stark reality of legal representation for America’s indigent defendants.
Karen Houppert’s new book, "Chasing Gideon," tells the stories of Americans for whom Gideon‘s theoretical promise of free representation went unrealized in practice.
A veteran reporter, Houppert points to the harsh changes stemming from the drug war and resultant "tough-on-crime" policies that changed the criminal justice landscape for defendants, as drug arrests skyrocketed, plea bargains increased, and sentence lengths became longer.
"Chasing Gideon" hints at possible legal reforms to address what many find to be a broken system of indigent defense in the United States, but the stories in the book focus on specific instances where Gideon‘s promise fails the poor who find themselves caught up in a frequently confusing and mystifying criminal justice system.
Many of the stories depict hardworking and devoted public defenders attempting to represent clients while they are crushed under unmanageable caseloads. For decades, public defenders have argued that they can’t effectively defend their clients with such heavy caseloads, and Houppert’s work adds forceful evidence to this claim.
The book also chronicles how states have interpreted Gideon‘s holding in vastly different ways, with some establishing statewide public defender systems while others merely dole out contracts to attorneys who sometimes have no experience in criminal law. The New York Times recently reported that only 24 states have statewide public defender systems. (New York is not among them.)
While many stories weave throughout this book, the central theme is expressed in a question Houppert asks in the first pages about how America will choose to define justice. Is justice "a warm body in a suit and tie to stand next to a defendant? Or do we mean to equate justice with fairness—and actually provide folks who are accused of crimes with meaningful representation?" While Gideon guarantees an attorney, a flawed indigent defense system often makes that promise meaningless.
Houppert focuses on indigent defendants’ stories from different states, which are representative of current problems to providing counsel to the poor throughout the country. She describes the harrowing story of an 18-year-old high school senior who ran into another car, resulting in the death of a passenger eight days after the accident. At the time, the public defender had 101 open cases that she was required to defend. She stated that "she was profoundly aware that she was getting a legal education on the backs of clients who deserved better."
The book also discusses stories from Louisiana, where defendants often remained in jail for days, and sometimes months, without any contact with an attorney while district attorneys decided whether or not to prosecute the cases. One of the most disturbing accounts in the book focuses on a death penalty case in Georgia where capital case public defenders feel inadequately funded to properly defend their clients.
The book also appeals to those fascinated by Gideon’s story by adding some details to his quest for justice that were not included in Lewis’ book. For example, it is likely that Gideon met a former judge in prison who had been convicted of murder.
An unrecognized character in Gideon’s story until recently, Joseph A. Peel Jr., probably assisted Gideon with his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. One theory suggests that Peel may have retained Gideon’s misspellings and grammatical errors to impress the court with this determined and uneducated defendant.
Generations of lawyers have grown up admiring Gideon’s perseverance and courage in taking on the U.S. Supreme Court and announcing to the trial court in Florida that "The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by Counsel."
But perhaps one of Gideon’s legacies is that while he did challenge the courts by demanding that he had a right to counsel, "the truth may be that even Clarence Earl Gideon needed a lawyer to prove his point, that all men need lawyers in the court of law."
Houppert has written a hugely important book that speaks to the dire situation many defendants find themselves in across this nation.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen is a former prosecutor who works for a New York City-based nonprofit, where she focuses on criminal justice policy, including writing about trends in legislation.