Indefensible - Review by Massachusetts Lawyer's Weekly



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

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Massachusetts Lawyer's Weekly

Having been a public defender for 17 years, I have been asked the same question countless times: "How can you represent those people?"

Most people look at me with a mixture of curiosity and contempt when they learn what I do for a living. Over the years, I have responded to this question in various ways, but I am always left wondering if I could have given a more cogent answer. When posed this question in the future, I will be inclined to tell whoever is asking to read "Indefensible" by David Feige.

Feige worked as a public defender in New York City for almost 15 years, most recently as the trial chief of the Bronx defenders' office. This book, his first, describes one very long day in the life of a public defender in one of the most crime-ridden boroughs of New York.

Although nonfiction, it reads like a novel. With brutal precision, Feige describes the role of a public defender and why one may elect to work in a criminal justice system that often disrespects, even reviles, the public defender as much as the indigent client she represents.

At the beginning of the book, Feige describes representing his first client, who, he believed, was wrongfully charged with murder. "I'd never felt as alive, as terrified or as righteous," writes Feige.

To many public defenders, fairness is a paramount issue. Most children go through a developmental stage during which fairness is of utmost importance. "That's not fair" is a refrain uttered often by young children. Many public defenders retain their sense of outrage at unfairness. The thought of someone being accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit is so unfair it fuels many public defenders in their quest for justice.

One of the most important aspects of a public defender's job is to humanize his clients in an overcrowded system that refers to incarcerated defendants as "bodies" that need to be processed in and out of the courthouse as quickly as possible. Another facet is to give voice to indigent clients who otherwise would have no one to speak for them.

"I still fundamentally believe in the possibility of redemption and the value of every individual," says Feige. "Fundamentalist Christians constantly speak passionately about seeing the possibility of redemption in everyone, and no one bats an eye. But make this same point in the secular context of the criminal justice system, and rather than praiseworthy piety it is heard as liberal gibberish. "

Feige's depiction of a criminal justice system that is overutilized and underfunded is simultaneously tragic and hysterical. He describes a judge who yells during empanelment, "All the Jews up against the wall," before ordering all potential jurors who are Jewish out of his courtroom so he does not have to be concerned about having the trial go forward during the Jewish High Holidays.

Feige includes some heart-rending stories of people abused by the system, such as a homeless woman who was trying to enter the courthouse to appear on a criminal case. The court officers insisted that she throw away a sandwich in her pocket - the only food she had to eat - so as to enter.

The officers seized her sandwich, and when the woman resisted, they denied her entrance into the courthouse. This action likely resulted in a warrant being issued for her arrest for failing to appear on the case. The court officers then threw away her sandwich.

Feige vividly illustrates how the system coerces an overwhelming majority of defendants to plead guilty rather than risk a trial, irrespective of their guilt or innocence. He reports that, in 2003, more than 50,000 misdemeanor cases were processed in the Bronx, yet only 23 resulted in jury verdicts. If accurate, this statistic strongly suggests that a majority of defendants are being denied their constitutional right to a jury trial.

Although some may accuse Feige of drawing biased conclusions about the criminal justice system, the examples he recalls provide substantial evidence for such conclusions.

With humor and compassion, he describes a system that has lost its focus on its duty and original goals. Providing due process to defendants and meting out justice is often lost in a system that is forced to process too many cases with woefully inadequate resources.

This book should be read by anyone who truly wants to understand how the criminal justice system treats indigent defendants. It should be read by legislators who provide funding to the system. And it should be read by public defenders, who will find validation for their chosen profession and a renewed sense of pride in their work.

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