Indefensible: One Lawyer's Journey into the Inferno of American Justice
Little, Brown and Company / 276 pages / $24.95
Indefensible purports to describe a real day in the life of a Bronx public defender, author David Feige. It starts at 8:52 a.m., and after the author "sprints," "lopes," "darts" and "trots" to various courtrooms, not wearing a watch and always late, his day (night, actually) ends at 10:18 p.m. By the time he goes home to the Upper West Side, Feige has spent nearly 12 hours defending poor criminal clients, or, as he more apocalyptically puts it, " ... in a Sisyphean struggle for justice in a system rigged to crush us." (More later on Feige's job satisfaction issues.)
Compressing action into a limited time period is an effective narrative tool, and Indefensible is a lively, fast-moving account. But there are problems. The author concedes that he has "taken some license with the chronology and in a number of instances brought together incidents that happened on different occasions." There are no footnotes, no bibliographical sources. And because Feige did not take notes or bother to review court transcripts, "much of the in-court dialogue is closely approximate rather than verbatim."
In short, Indefensible is not a real single day in Feige's life. The dialogue may or may not be what was actually said. The book's opening claim to be "nonfiction," then, is a fiction itself. Taken together, these flaws seriously undermine Feige's damning indictment of the criminal justice system, leaving the reader uncertain as to how much is valid, and how much is the unsourced rant of a burned-out public defender.
But Feige's 15 years in the Bronx defender's office do give him an encyclopedic knowledge of how the system works - or doesn't - and, as he dramatically illustrates, the dysfunctions all flow from impossible numbers. For example, 62,691 marijuana arrests by the New York Police Department in a single year dictate that more than 90 percent of these cases must be disposed of by plea deals. Multiple adjournments are the basic step in the plea deal dance, and, guilty or innocent, indigent defendants remain in jail while the dance goes on. Defendants who demand a trial will have many more adjournments (and more jail time), and then, if convicted, get a much stiffer sentence than was offered in the plea (the "trial tax," in street jargon). And since everyone has an impossible caseload, prosecutors and defenders have only the most superficial knowledge of their cases, and often fail to show up together at the right court with the right files - resulting in more adjournments and more waiting in jail.
At its best, Indefensible is a compelling collage of the agonizing human dramas that play out as cases grind through the court system. Feige provides an insider's guide to this deadly serious fun-house of life-ruining surprises, describing the prosecutor's control of the secret grand jury process, the court clerk "spinning the wheel" to determine which judge gets each case, the defender slipping a new pack of cigarettes (always still sealed to make certain other contraband isn't secreted in the pack) to a jailed client to give him "currency" inside.
Feige's descriptive powers are often impressive, and the forlorn, grimy grittiness of big-city criminal justice is at once troubling and familiar. But at its worst, Indefensible degenerates into slashing attacks on the countless lawyers and judges Feige dislikes. Bronx Assistant District Attorney Sarah Schall, for example, is described as "sleazy," "small and mean and twitchy, and she tends to march rather than walk." Judge Diane Kiesel's expression is an "icy pucker," and her "utter detachment perfectly reflect[s] her complete heartlessness." The author "loathes" many judges and "despises" prosecutors and "all they stand for." And Feige's disdain is not limited to criminal justice attorneys. As a law student, he spent a summer as an intern with the Wall Street firm of Dewey Ballantine, which draws from him a bizarre metaphor about "how brilliantly, brutally subtle penal control could be" in blue chip firms. The brutal part of Dewey Ballantine's penal program seems to have been lavish free lunches.
Despite branding the criminal justice system a "monstrous" inferno, Feige offers no concrete solutions, which makes Indefensible more diatribe than diagnostic. The narrative is periodically disrupted by too-cute stylistic devices: a man in a blue jumpsuit becomes Blue, a dreadlocked defendant is called Dreads, getting into a courthouse is " ... a little like clearing security at Angry International Airport."
Finally, Feige's first-person account is relentlessly self-absorbed, and his mood swings (on a single page he is "utterly happy," his work is both "intoxicating" and "terrifying," he endures "constant stress and confusion," and later, "dislocating despair" ) detract from his story. His "powerlessness" is a recurring, annoying theme. In the end, Feige's pose as a "righteous outlaw ... the last bulwark between freedom and incarceration" is simply tiresome.
David W. Marston served as United States attorney in Philadelphia, and has written two books on criminal justice and legal issues, "Inside Hoover's FBI" and "Malice Aforethought." He currently practices law in the Philadelphia office of Gibbons, Del Deo.