As David Feige describes in his recent memoir Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey into the Inferno of American Justice (Little, Brown, and Company, 2006), early in his career as a public defender, before Feige became trial chief at the Bronx Defenders, he was an attorney with Brooklyn Legal Aid. In 1994—a year in which more residents of New York City were victims of violent crimes than the entire population of Atlanta—he takes his first homicide case. Before he even meets his client, Gillian Sands, she has already confessed to police that she “did stab Rodney Sands repeatedly about the body with a knife,” using the awkward, deadpan phraseology of the criminal justice system.
Taking the homicide case is a brash move: Feige, a young lawyer familiar with mundane misdemeanors, hasn’t asked permission from his supervisor before snatching the assignment. When he interviews Gillian before the bail hearing, Feige learns that she has been a victim of ever-worsening domestic violence; she would show up at work with bruises and welts, then fractures. Rodney, her husband, was drunk on the night of the incident, and had been swinging his fists and threatening to end her life. He chased Gillian into the kitchen, where she grabbed a kitchen knife and swiped him, hitting an artery. He bled to death. It was her first arrest.
At the bail hearing, Feige decides to ask Judge Marty Karopkin to release Gillian until the grand jury proceeding. Waiving bail on a murder case is virtually unheard of, but Feige lays out a compelling argument, focusing on Gillian’s lack of a criminal record, years of abuse at the hands of Rodney, and deep remorse at what had happened. She was acting in self-defense, he argues, and with her deep roots in Brooklyn isn’t a threat to flee.
The judge listened to his emotional plea, then asked the prosecutor, Dino Lombardi, to respond. Any prosecutor would argue against her release, and Lombardi was no different. “I am required by my office to ask for remand,” he tells the judge, meaning that she should not be allowed out under any circumstances. But while she speaks, he shakes his head steadily, as Feige recounts:
And then he did it again: slowly and deliberately, he gave Karopkin the head shake. I don’t believe in what I’m saying, he telegraphed silently so that the court reporter (who only notes words) couldn’t take it down. If a supervisor ever reviewed the transcript of the proceeding, Dino would be totally clean—a bored ADA who was just following procedure late on a Saturday night.
Gillian walked out of the courtroom the same evening, her bail waived. Later, a grand jury failed to indict her after hearing Gillian’s tale of abuse; she became a free woman. A prosecutor had heroically stepped out of his predestined role, a judge ad paid attention, and a battered woman was eventually cleared of wrongdoing.
Feige is wise to use this story has an introduction to his riveting, blood-pressure-raising memoir. A reader of the next 250 pages of the book, whose narrative substructure is an actual workday with the Bronx Defenders, will need to be reminded that occasionally (or at least once) the criminal justice system is humane and flexible to enough to render a sensible outcome.
The Bronx Defenders, with its thirty-five lawyers and team of social workers and investigators, handles about 12,500 criminal cases a year. Almost none of these, however, go to trial. Instead, they are either dismissed entirely or pleaded out, and the blurry day that Feige rushes us through paints the Bronx Criminal Courthouse as a swirling mass of energy that almost never finds release, or meaningful resolve. Papers are reviewed, calendars consulted, dates adjourned, motions considered, attorneys searched for: tomorrow will be much like today.
Getting closer to the action, however, brings the picture into focus. Those numbers refer to files, those files to people, and those people have stories. Complicated stories. There is a crack addict that Feige helps get into jail so that she can clean up and get back on her medication; a defendant charged with murder based on the single testimony of a man who drunk at the time (after two years the case is eventually thrown out, as it becomes clear that it was a drug-related hit unrelated to Feige’s client); an urban activist protesting the city’s destruction of gardens. Not all of his clients are of the innocent or activist type, of course. There is Reggie McFadden, who is “a killer, a thief, a drug user, and an all-around badass.” Many clients are addicts, some are wife beaters, others clearly sociopaths—beyond any help that Feige or the system can offer. Still, Feige delves into the lives of such shadowy figures, providing frank portraits. What he finds is that—genuine sociopaths aside—he grows to like many of his clients, regardless of past deeds. In television shows, the criminals emerge from dark cells to growl; Indefensible reminds us that they, too, are human.
Feige provides a behind-the-scenes account of his time in the courthouse, sharing stories of sheer wackiness, others of gross inhumanity, and a few that don’t have a clear moral lesson—except that each day many more poor people are in a great deal of pain, and the criminal justice system hasn’t figured out a way to assist, rehabilitate, or even simply listen to them in a meaningful way. Feige’s book is an indictment, but he doesn’t overreach. Many lives are ruined by the system problems of the criminal justice system, and especially unhinged judges but others are damaged before they set foot in the courtroom, products of poverty and deficit of opportunity.
There is a cathartic quality to Feige’s writing when he turns his focus on the judges (all of their real names are used). Judge Diane Kiesel, for example, is said to display “an icy pucker and utter detachment.” It gets better: “Her hair is processed to the color of curb cement, and she has long, spindly fingers that move impatiently while she presides,” fingers which Feige then compares to the Grim Reaper. “When forced to interact with a defendant,” Feige writes. “Kiesel will hardly glance at him or her, preferring to stare down at the bench, over at the prosecutor, or even at defense counsel, anything to avoid acknowledging the humanity of the person standing helplessly before her.”
On flimsy evidence, Kiesel puts a young man in jail and marks him as a sexual offender for groping a young girl—even though the testimony of the police and the victim contradict each other, the man has an eyewitness that said he was inside during the time of the incident, he was identified at a distance of one-hundred feet, and he was picked up heading in the opposite direction from which the perpetrator had fled (and was on his way to a job interview, no less). In another case in front of Kiesel, a wife that had originally taken out an order of protection against her husband barring him from the house later tried to call the DA’s office numerous times to modify the order, so that the husband could come back home. No one, apparently, returned her calls. During a routine check of the house, the husband was found in the home and arrested. In court, the wife tells Kiesel that she wants him home. Instead Kiesel orders the husband to spend a month behind bars—and prevents him from seeing his wife and children for a year.
In another absurd case, a man walking his friend’s dog is given summonses for, among other things, failing to carry the vaccination report of the dog with him. The owner of the dog agrees to send in the report, but doesn’t. Years later, warrant officers arrest the dog-walker in front of his house without explanation. He spends three days in jail, wondering what the hell is going on. When he finally makes it front of Judge Mary Ann Brigantti-Hughes, she is unsympathetic, asking him to admit that he knew that his dog was unvaccinated. He explains that in fact the dog wasn’t his, and that he has no idea about any vaccination record. She throws him back in jail. On day four, in front of a less psychotic judge, Feige gets the dog-walker out.
As an organizer, I spent four years wandering the halls of Brooklyn’s housing court, and many of the court scenes from Indefensible brought back painful memories. Feige brilliantly captures the crowded elevators, power-hungry court officers, and officious air of these uninspiring buildings that seem to suffocate a person’s normal ability for compassion and empathy.
In an environment that leads most people to simply shrug, Feige’s anger never dissipates; there are many instances in which I expected him to explode. Some public defenders, in fact, do lose it. One female attorney looked up a female judge after a terrible ruling and reportedly said: “Fuck you, you nasty bitch.” Feige describes, “It wasn’t under her breath, and it wasn’t the whisper that a lawyer can often get away with. It was loud and proud and impossible to ignore.” She cracked, and then attempted to run out of the courtroom, struggled with a court officer, and was arrested for contempt of court and resisting arrest.
It isn’t a blurb Feige is likely to use for his book, but I consider Indefensible to be a wonderful, enraged, and impassioned “Fuck you, you nasty bitch”—leveled at the criminal justice system and the criminally negligent judges that hide within its walls. Feige has put his words down for the record: he cannot run. It’s also, paradoxically, a curse borne out of love, a curse that hasn’t given up on the belief that the ideals of law and justice are worth struggling for. We must be held accountable for our actions, the law demands. The same goes for judges and lawyers and cops and court officers. “Everyone assumes that as citizens we should respect the criminal justice system,” Feige writes. “What is often overlooked is that the system should respect the citizens as well.”