Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People's Justice

Karen Houppert (Author)


The Washington Post reporter delivers a groundbreaking investigation into the nation's crisis of indigent defense--"a hugely important book" (New York Law Journal).

A Nieman Report's Top Ten Investigative Journalism Books of 2013

First published to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, which guaranteed all criminal defendants the right to legal counsel, Chasing Gideon offers a personal journey through our systemic failure to fulfill this basic constitutional right. Written in the tradition of Anthony Lewis's landmark work Gideon's Trumpet, it focuses on the stories of four defendants in four states--Washington, Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia--that are emblematic of nationwide problems. Revealing and disturbing, it is "a book of nightmares" because it shows that the "'justice system' that too often produces the exact opposite of what its name suggests, particularly for its most vulnerable constituents" (The Miami Herald).

Following its publication, Chasing Gideon became an integral part of a growing national conversation about how to reform indigent defense in America and inspired an HBO documentary as well as the resource website

"Chasing Gideon is a wonderful book, its human stories gripping, its insight into how our law is made profound." --Anthony Lewis, author of Gideon's Trumpet

Product Details

$26.95  $24.79
New Press
Publish Date
March 19, 2013
6.4 X 1.1 X 9.3 inches | 1.2 pounds
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About the Author

Karen Houppert was a contributing writer at the Washington Post Magazine for many years. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Newsday, the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Village Voice, Salon, and many other publications. She is the author of two other books: Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military--for Better or Worse and The Curse: Confronting the Last Taboo, Menstruation. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she teaches in the MA in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University and is on the journalism faculty of Morgan State University.


"Chasing Gideon is a wonderful book, its human stories gripping, its insight into how our law is made profound. Fifty years after the Gideon case was decided by the Supreme Court, the struggle to give poor criminal defendants a fair chance in court is still being fought--by lawyers, judges, and an inspired writer, Karen Houppert."
--Anthony Lewis, author of Gideon's Trumpet

"Our country's indigent defense crisis profoundly undermines the accuracy and fairness of our criminal justice system for defendants, victims, and the public alike. With clarity and power, Chasing Gideon demonstrates this crisis, the reasons behind it, and the ways to fix it. It is a must-read for anyone who cares about justice."
--Virginia Sloan, executive director, The Constitution Project

"The Gideon decision provides an essential mechanism for making the ideal of justice a reality, even for America's most marginalized people. Author Karen Houppert compellingly examines the multitude of ways in which that mechanism remains under attack fifty years after it was established. Realizing the promise of Gideon often requires overcoming parsimony, political pressure, and the malignant indifference of government bodies and the public at large. Chasing Gideon illustrates the scope and seriousness of the indigent defense crisis nationally and makes the case that defending Gideon is essential and a true test of our nation's commitment to liberty and justice for all."
--Anthony D. Romero, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union

"Having spent much of my career building a movement of public defenders across the South working to make Gideon's promise a reality, I am grateful to Karen Houppert for helping readers understand just how far we are from realizing the right to adequate counsel for all. Chasing Gideon shines a bright light on the crisis of indigent defense and challenges us to finally live up to our most cherished democratic principles."
--Jonathan Rapping, associate professor, Atlanta's John Marshall Law School, and president and founder of Gideon's Promise

"Houppert demonstrates that most public defenders are dedicated lawyers but face severe disadvantages due to overwhelming case loads, inadequate budgets for expert witnesses and the like, as well as the nature of the criminal justice system, which often emphasizes the desirability of a plea bargain instead of taking a case to a full trial by judge or jury...a well-researched and [well]-written investigation that shows the inadequacies in stark human terms rather than as an abstraction."
--Kirkus Reviews

"Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed in Gideon v. Wainwright the right to free counsel to all defendants facing the possibility of imprisonment if they were unable to procure it themselves. Today, more than 80 percent of defendants are represented by public defenders. Here, Houppert (contributing writer, Washington Post Magazine; Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military--for Better or Worse) takes up the call of Anthony Lewis's classic Gideon's Trumpet and examines what has changed--and what has not--in the past five decades. What results is a stinging indictment of a system of indigent defense, a widespread failure that, the author claims, dooms the nation's poor to being represented by insufficient counsel, unwise plea bargains, and wrongful convictions. Houppert examines public defense systems in Washington, Louisiana, and Georgia and follows illustrative cases: a teenager facing vehicular manslaughter charges, a prisoner who has served nearly 30 years for a crime he did not commit, and a defendant facing the death penalty.
VERDICT Fluent and fluid, Houppert's book has all the urgency this subject demands and is a page-turner. Alternately thrilling and gut-riling, this book will grab and hold lovers of great nonfiction. Highly recommended."
--Library Journal