Indefensible - Review by Chicago Reader



"Indefensible", my book about the criminal justice system, was published by Little, Brown & Co. in June of 2006.

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Chicago Reader

This first-person account of David Feige's work as a public defender in the Bronx is sickeningly well-done for the first book from a guy who claims he never planned to become a writer. Realized with lip-smacking gallows humor, gut-twisting passion, and all the narrative swing of a top novel, this nonfiction trip through the meat grinder of criminal court feels as slaphappy as a vaudeville skit.

Feige, who defended the NYC indigent for nearly 15 years, takes the reader through a reconstructed double shift during which he juggles a dizzying number of cases. Though the narrative is organized around a single archetypal day, thanks to a snappy web of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and camera pans away from the narrator, he delivers a rich portrait of many more cogs (and wrenches) in the machine. The flow is so perfect, the ironies so rich, that at first I suspected Feige was making it up. But he tells tales on so many psycho judges that if he isn't put away for libel one can probably assume his facts are as taut as his prose.

Feige's explicit agenda is to underline the abstract idea of judicial fallibility with concrete examples. Lots of innocent people are arrested and go to jail, and as Feige illustrates, it's not always for obvious reasons like faulty witness memory. The system is so packed and constipated that judges and DAs try to keep as many cases away from a full jury trial as possible; even the innocent are sometimes advised to throw up their hands and plea-bargain, "confessing" to crimes they didn't commit rather than cool their heels in the courthouse another day. (Readers of Steve Bogira's Courtroom 302 may find this familiar terrain.)

Feige's deeper point is more subtle but simple: criminals have life stories too, and the circumstances that push people to desperate acts can be as tragic as the crimes themselves. Skill aside, this book is an object lesson in perseverance and empathy from somebody who could have lived "safe and sound in a life full of good choices" but gave his best years to the unsafe and screwed.

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