Sadly, many Americans get their concept of the criminal process through television, where justice is capably dispensed in 60-minute installments. In reality, the criminal justice system is like the adage about hot dogs - you really don't want to see how they're made. And those elbow and knee-deep in the muck and mire of the process are the public defenders. David Feige's Indefensible seeks to take readers inside that process from the eyes of a longtime public defender in the South Bronx. And rather than hot dogs, this system tries, often not well, to produce "some vague facsimile of truth." Feige's truth isn't pretty and his account is often scathing. In fact, at times it reads as if he has more than a few axes to grind.
Using a so-called typical day for a public defender handling murder cases, Feige covers the gamut of the system. We meet the clients, ranging from those charged with murder to a woman who agrees with Feige that she needs to be jailed to get off the street and back on her psychiatric medication, to the man accused of walking dogs without proof of their vaccination. We meet other defense lawyers, prosecutors, and judges. We see the vagaries of the system and those who comprise it and the system's occasional successes and its more numerous delays and failures.
Although the day-in-the-life approach might be a workable vehicle for the author, it hurts the flow. In order to cover all the issues and ground he wants, Feige frequently reflects on older events and cases, blending them into his thoughts during this day's docket. While these matters are necessary for understanding the whole, they tend to tug the reader here and there. Some areas make those familiar with the law raise their eyebrows. For example, when he has one murder client testify before a grand jury, Feige leaves the impression that either he questioned his client in the proceeding (something the law prohibits) or that the prosecuting attorney followed the defense script for the case.
Still, there is quite a bit to commend Indefensible. The book may be at its best not necessarily in describing the inner workings of New York's struggling criminal court system, but in portraying public defenders. At the core is concern for the client. That concern, however, has an equally motivating counterpart - fear of the consequences of failure.