12) Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey into the Inferno of American Justice, by David Feige
This is a very good book, in a number of ways, and perhaps it was a mistake of the publishers to market it as a book about the American justice system; it covers so much else. David Feige describes a day in the life of a public defender in the Bronx, where he worked for fifteen years, running from courtroom to courtroom with lengthy interspersed reminiscences about how he got there. The human stories of those who are damaged by the justice system – even those who are eventually acquitted – are described with compassion and occasionally humour. But he even manages to evoke our sympathy for those who are guilty:
Even after more than a decade in the system, I still fundamentally believe in the possibility of redemption and the value of every individual. I care for my murderous clients… Their shortcomings don’t disqualify them from my caring. But somehow, when I try to explain this in the context of my work, I’m met with blank confusion.
Reading this book on the reality of what the law does to people is an unsettling contrast with the glamorisation of cop shows on TV, be it the refined Morse or Dalziel and Pascoe, or even the more gritty but (I suspect) equally unrealistic Hill Street Blues in the old days. The biggest villains are certainly those evil judges whose sentencing is a mockery, and who cannot be reined in – indeed, the only likely effect of public opinion is to make sentencing practice harsher. (One of Feige’s clients asks in bewilderment, “Why wouldn’t any judge release me if they thought I was innocent? Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?”) I suspect that the Bronx is much worse off in that respect than anywhere I have ever lived, or am likely to live; but that doesn’t detract from the universality of the message.
David Feige is actually a very old friend of mine – the year I lived in the Netherlands, when I turned 13, he was a year or two older and introduced me and my brother to the delights of Dungeons and Dragons, and (in my case anyway) Roger Zelazny’s writing. So it’s very good to find that he has turned out as a force for making the world a better place.