Books and Films

Reviews of books that are recommended to public defenders:

A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava (Univ. Chicago Press, 2008).  This book is delightfully weird, unbelievably long (678 pages), and annoying/tangential/boring in many places. Written by a public defender, it’s about a fictional public defender who goes completely off the rails. (The book has an interesting back story of going from self-published to award-winning, but that’s another topic.)  Boxing doesn’t excite me so the long diversions about boxing were lost on me. The long diversions about (dozens of) other topics were incomprehensible in places. But the courtroom scenes depicting overloaded public defenders, smug and unprepared buffoon prosecutors and arrogant/abusive judges were so terrific that it is worth reading. The writing is way, way out there, but it’s hilarious and vivid. Just read the brilliant client interviews and arraignments on pages 11-44 and then see if you can put the book down after that.  A teaser excerpt is here. (1/13/14)

Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer, by Andrea D. Lyon (Kaplan, 2010).  As one of the few prominent women death penalty lawyers, Lyon was a true trailblazer in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.  Let’s just get the hero worship out of the way up front: she has tried over 130 homicide cases and defended 30 potential capital cases at the trial level. She has won each of the 19 cases she has taken through penalty phase trial. Angel of Death Row recounts her experience from the early battle to be accepted as a woman on the homicide task force to becoming chief of the unit, and from there to starting a death penalty center, and eventually leaving to be a clinical professor.  She describes the ethical challenge of representing a client who doesn’t want to fight the death penalty and the weight of believing your client is innocent. More importantly, Lyon is candid and personal, revealing the insecurities of being a large woman and, at one point, being in an abusive relationship. Without sacrificing warmth and humility, she is confident in her legal skills and in her instinct to use emotional connection and cues to advocate for clients. I greatly appreciate her warmth and candor in this book, which also provides plenty of humor and legal analysis. (1/6/14)

Convictions: A Prosecutor’s Battles Against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins and Enron Thieves, by John Kroger (2009).  As a public defender and constant adversary of prosecutors, I resisted reading this book about Kroger’s years as a federal prosecutor in New York. In the interest of full disclosure, Kroger and I were classmates at Harvard Law School. We graduated the same year but did not know each other. His photo on the book cover looks only slightly familiar. I enjoyed the book more than I expected. It meticulously traces the evidence and legal strategy in several of Kroger’s cases (mafia, drug and Enron prosecutions). Kroger, who left prosecuting to be a law professor, is inclined to philosophical and ethical examination. He admits mistakes and ethical missteps. I was left feeling he was among the most ethical of prosecutors and yet still drunk with power and willing to use that power to extort pleas from defendants and sandbag their attorneys. He is candid about genuinely liking some of his informants, despite their admissions of killing piles of people. But there is plenty of scorn and snark saved for defense attorneys, much of it seeming a bit dismissive of the value and importance of the defense function. It’s still a fascinating read and shows the personal toll of criminal practice. (11/9/13)
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson (Random House, 2014.)  Just Mercy is a hauntingly beautiful memoir that has won many well-deserved awards (listed here). Tracing his career, Stevenson describes feeling disconnected while at Harvard Law School, until meeting Steve Bright. Ten years later, I felt the same law school disconnect until encountering the teaching of both Bright and Stevenson. After law school, Stevenson worked with Bright (and slept on his couch) for a few years prior to creating the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 in Montgomery, Alabama. In Just Mercy, Stevenson describes his advocacy for people in prison and on death row—most of whom are poor, black, and had abysmal trial representation. At times, this book is so vivid and painful that I had to set it aside for several days before I could pick it up again. One example is the description of meeting Joe Sullivan in prison (p. 262). The wheelchair, the cage, the prison. I had to close the book for a while because it was so deeply disturbing. But Stevenson’s gift is his hopefulness. As he describes the excruciating execution of his client, Jimmy Dill, he moves into his overarching theme of brokenness. He writes (at page 289): “But our brokenness is the also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.” This riff on brokenness recurs in his presentations and writing and resonates deeply if you too are drawn to this work. I first heard him speak when I was a law student in 1994. Other aspiring public defenders advised, “Drop everything and go if you get the chance to work for Bryan Stevenson–or to take his class, or to hear him speak.” This was good advice. When I heard him speak, it was like Yo-Yo Ma playing my favorite Beatles songs on a cello inside my ribcage. He was already preaching the themes that weave through his speeches today: Each of us is more that the worst thing we have ever done. The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is justice. We have a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. The real question about the death penalty is not: does this person deserve to die? It is: do we as society deserve to kill this person? Stevenson is unflinching, yet somehow he maintains a tone that is hopeful and– to use a word he often uses– energizing. It becomes clear why he was given a MacArthur Genius Award, and why he is said to have received the longest ever standing ovation for a TED talk (for his 2012 talk, “We need to talk about an injustice.”) In Just Mercy, he writes (at p. 289): “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it.” All of us who advocate for the indigent in the criminal justice system know that constantly fighting a system that bullies broken people can make you feel that you will spontaneously combust from the frustration and fury of it all. Stevenson describes his own response to feeling discouraged: there is no time for that, there’s work to do. Simple as it is, this is a motivation that works: however beaten down you feel today, show up tomorrow to help one client and that will propel you forward. This is a wonderful book to gift to people who are interested in understanding the motivations to work as a public defender. I gave it to my parents. My father speaks of it often, my mother was just talking about pulling quotes about liberation for Passover. I took my dad to hear Stevenson speak in February at a capital punishment seminar. In a giant packed auditorium, I heard hundreds of thick-skinned capital defenders quietly sniffle as Stevenson told his milkshake story, which he also tells in the book. I got teary even though I’ve heard the story several times. While providing an account of intolerable injustice, Stevenson’s gift is that he tells it in a way that makes us all feel re-energized to keep up the fight. (4/14/15)


Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption, by Shon Hopwood (Crown Press, 2012). This terrific memoir chronicles Hopwood’s decade in federal prison, during which he transformed from a rebellious Nebraska kid robbing banks into a jailhouse lawyer winning Supreme Court cases. Along the way, he befriended some of the nation’s top lawyers (Seth Waxman and Noah Levine) and started an already impressive legal career. This book is a great read with lot of substance and a truly uplifting redemption story. There is much to enjoy in the descriptions of intricate rules of prison society, accounts of the broken system that landed many others in prison, and in the poignant story of Hopwood falling in love with a woman he had long admired. For me the highlight was the process of Hopwood getting hooked by criminal law, living and breathing a particular legal issue until he finally and triumphantly untangled it (for all the crim law wonks, the issue was using the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to exclude a confession). The book ends as Hopwood is beginning law school, which he will complete in 2014. Hopwood first caught my attention last summer with his online exchange  with U.S. District court Judge Richard G Kopf, who sentenced Hopwood in 1998 (Kopf writes a pretty entertaining blog here). Kopf concluded that, regarding Hopwood, Kopf’s “sentencing instincts suck.” Just read it because the whole exchange is phenomenal. Now Hopwood is about to graduate from law school and has been hired as a 2014 law clerk for Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. By all accounts, Hopwood seems to be filled with gratitude and humility, and is using his prominence to advance his stated goal: “to change the criminal justice system in a way that offers people more hope and less crime at the same time.” Inspiring guy, remarkable story. (12/30/13)

Orange is the New Black: coming soon.

Reviews of films that are recommended to public defenders:

Gideon’s Army: coming soon.

Murder on a Sunday Morning: coming soon.

Scenes of a Crime: coming soon.

The Staircase: coming soon.


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