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.