When 1960 opened the door to the tumultuous decade of change to follow, I was in my sophomore year in business school at the University of Southern California. That summer I read the recently released novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, and was profoundly impressed by its lessons that emphasize tolerance and decry racial prejudice. The novel’s protagonist, Atticus Finch, who displayed tremendous courage in representing a black man accused of rape in the face of open hostility by the white community in which he lived in the American Deep South, made a like impression, serving as he did as a moral hero and model of integrity. And as these teachings filtered through my conscious mind and touched a nerve deep inside me at the same time that the fledgling Civil Rights Movement began to occupy center stage in newspapers and on television, the idea of becoming a lawyer and fighting racial injustice in the courtroom took hold.
Later the same year, I viewed a movie, Inherit The Wind, based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee (no relation to Harper Lee, Mockingbird’s author), and fuel was added to the proverbial fire. A fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial, in which Scopes, a high school teacher was prosecuted in Tennessee for teaching evolution, and in which the famous attorney, Clarence Darrow in defending him faced off against the equally famous William Jennings Bryan who led the team of prosecutors, as the drama unfolded, I was once again mesmerized by the idea of how one lawyer, with courage and dedication, fortified with careful preparation, could fight for truth, justice, and a free society of ideas.
In 1963, I entered the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and that year, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright, standing for the proposition that if an individual is charged with a crime and is too poor to afford counsel, one will be provided to him or her free of charge. Reading about the story behind the case in Gideon’s Trumpet by Anthony Lewis, a non-fiction book whose author possessed the narrative power of a novelist, in 1964, my focus was fixed on the Criminal Justice System. Realizing that the decision compelled the birth of large-scale Public Defender Offices, during the summer after graduation in 1966 I clerked for the L.A. County PD Office, and became a Deputy Public Defender thereafter.
Stationed in the Compton Judicial District, a low-income area hosting a large minority population of African and Latino Americans, it was my privilege to serve there for several years, and alongside my colleagues to fight for fair treatment and justice for that population.
Today, all phases of the American Criminal Justice System are in crisis. And that is why I was inspired to write my novel, Gideon’s Children, to educate readers about the birth of the large-scale Public Defender Offices in the 1960s, and the mini revolution they created in the courtroom as part of the greater Civil Rights Movement. And my hope is that while the reader is being entertained by a fascinating drama, that he or she will also learn about the workings of the Criminal Justice System, the supreme value of individual constitutional rights, and the crucial role Public Defenders play in protecting same.
With the latter under attack today by the Patriot Act, the No-Fly Rule, and government spying at all levels, and racially-tainted tragic events in Ferguson, Detroit, Staten Island, Cleveland, and North Charleston propelling a growing discussion of the desperate need to fix our broken Criminal Justice System, G.C. seeks to contribute to enlarging that discussion and further stimulating the New Civil Rights Movement that is now underway fifty years after the original.
I chose the novel form to bring this vital message to the attention of readers, because of my belief that the drama that this genre offers presents the best opportunity to capture and hold an individual’s attention over a period of time sufficient to allow the message to sink in and become indelibly imprinted. As I looked back at the books that made such a profound impression on me, I found that all of them first entertained me to capture and hold my attention, then with me intensely focused on the drama, effortlessly educated me about the need to banish racial prejudice, the First Amendment’s freedom of ideas, and the right to counsel, before finally inspiring me to become engaged.
The heroic courage and high moral standards exhibited by Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s fictional righteous lawyer, and echoed by the characters based on the real-life Clarence Darrow, entertained and educated and ultimately inspired me to participate, to become a Public Defender, and to write Gideon’s Children. And my wholehearted hope is that G.C. will entertain you, and educate you about the workings of our Criminal Justice System, and the crucial role Public Defenders play in protecting the supremely valuable constitutional rights that each of us enjoys. And ultimately, I pray that you will be inspired to support our Public Defenders by lobbying your governmental representatives to provide the funds to vastly increase their numbers so that their caseloads will be reduced to reasonable and they can labor at their best to serve the interests of justice.
Public Defenders are today’s righteous lawyers. They are real, flesh-and-blood men and women who day after day, underfunded and overworked, and mostly alone, face off against the massive power of the State, courageously seeking justice for their clients and protecting our precious constitutional rights. They are noble warriors, and they deserve the support G.C. urges you to give.
*It has come to my attention via a book review in The New York Times on July 10, 2015, that in Harper Lee’s latest novel, Go Set a Watchman, the reader is presented with a second version of Atticus Finch that harshly contradicts the original character in To Kill a Mockingbird, portraying him as a racist who attends a Klan meeting and rails against desegregation.
I have not read Watchman, no do I plan to. It is my opinion that those persons responsible for the publication of this book, which tarnishes the reputation of the iconic “righteous” lawyer in what amounts to a paragon of crass commercialism, should be ashamed of themselves, and I refuse to contribute to their profiteering, and urge others to do likewise.