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Letter From Oxford, Mississippi: Where Public Defenders Go to Church

While Gideon's Promise offers training in courtroom tactics and storytelling for public defenders, its goal is much larger: to create a nationwide community.

The lawyers convene behind closed conference-room doors at the back of the University of Mississippi’s Grisham Law Library. A long table has been removed, leaving only wooden chairs, a dozen of which are arranged in a semi-circle in the middle of the open floor. At one end, Charles Luskin leans forward in his seat, bony right elbow propped on bony right knee, bearded chin resting in his palm. He listens intently, periodically reaching down to sip from a Coca-Cola can on the floor between his feet, almost as a nervous tick. Pen tucked behind his left ear, Luskin looks uneasy, like a guilty man about to take the witness stand — an unusual countenance for a public defender.

When it’s Luskin’s turn, he doesn’t bother introducing himself. He lives in Lafayette, Louisiana, and these people have come from Alabama, Georgia, Michigan; many of them he has only known a year and is seeing for just the third time. Others he has met just this weekend. And yet Luskin considers these men and women his kin, bonded by their experience in Gideon’s Promise, a community dedicated to “the church of public defense,” as one member calls it. The people in this room know Luskin well enough to call him by his childhood nickname, Cass. That familiarity does little to smooth the quiver in his deep voice as he launches into a confession.

“I’ve got about 160 incarcerated clients,” he says. “I was sworn into the bar in October. So I’m sitting there, looking at this stack of cases on my desk thinking: ‘Oh shit! I don’t know what to do with this one. No idea what to do with this one.’ And I get a call from my stepsister and she was like, ‘This guy I was supposed to go on a date with never called me….’ That’s not a real problem! Look at all these fucking problems. There’s a building over there with a thousand people sitting in cages. And there are buildings like that in every single parish, in every single county. But now I’m being a dickhead to my stepsister, and that’s not right. But it’s like I don’t know what to do.”

Luskin’s words draw nods and audible affirmations from the group. These men and women are all public defenders, and they all share similar burdens back at home. Nationwide, indigent defense is in a state of crisis. A 2011 American Bar Associationarticlereported that 15 of 22 statewide public-defender systems studied by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2007 exceeded the ABA’s recommended full-time caseload of no more than 150 felony cases and 400 misdemeanor cases per year for full-time attorneys.There were 500 felonies per Florida public defender, and a Tennessee staff of six tasked with more than 10,000 misdemeanors. In Luskin’s Louisiana, some public defenders report handling 19,000 cases in a single year.Meanwhile, a national 20 percent increase in casesbetween 1999 and 2007was met with only a 4 percent boost in public-defender staffing. Budgets for indigent defense have been eviscerated: a $3.74 million cut in Missouri in 2015,anearly 62 percent slash for Louisiana in 2017.

On top of that crushing calculus is an increasingly callused body of prosecutors and judges who are geared to process the poor as quickly as possible, often with little patience for resistance and superfluous procedure. Luskin, 30, is a Harvard Law School graduate who passed up a potentially lucrative career in high-profile criminal or corporate law because he loves people and wants to make a difference. For him, and young idealists like him, the pressure to become a cog in a criminal justice machine can be overwhelming. That’s why they’ve come to Gideon’s Promise, which offers training in courtroom tactics and storytelling to humanize clients in the eyes of judges and juries.Perhaps more importantly, Gideon’s Promise provides a support network with a listserv to connect members, and bi-annual “reunions” like this one in Oxford, Mississippi.

“You come in here and you get trained on how to be a good lawyer, and then they place you in situations where you can’t be one,” Luskin continues. “What do you do about that?”

There’s a brief pause and a gasp for air as Luskin dives into what’s really bothering him.

“I met a guy back in November,” he says. “I really liked this guy. We talked about his case, had this long conversation. He had the saddest fucking story I’ve ever heard. He’s robbed and shot, like five years ago. And he lays on the ground for 45 minutes bleeding out slowly.” Some in the rapt audience groan with sympathy. “And then [the police] finally get there. He’s describing how it feels. He’s been laying on the ground for 45 minutes, thinking that he’s dying. And he cried, and it was this really cathartic experience. I was like, Fuck yeah, this is why I do the job. How can I help this guy? Right?”

But the case gets transferred to another lawyer, he explains. And he moves on to the next file in the stack on his desk. Weeks pass. Then, one day, he’s in court, mind buried in another case, when a sheriff’s deputy comes in and tells him that one of the defendants awaiting trial along with a crowd of fellow inmates is freaking out. Could Luskin go talk to him?

“So the deputy pulls me out of court, and I talk to this guy,” Luskin says. “We go in the back, and he’s like, ‘I can’t go back to LaSalle Correctional’ or whatever parish he’s in. ‘They’re stabbing people over there. And If I go back there, I’m going to get stabbed. And my lawyer won’t reset my case.’ We have this conversation, and I’m like, Fuck man…. ‘Hey, wait, do I know you from somewhere?’”

“He was like, ‘Yeah, it’s me.’ And this is the dude that I had had this two-hour conversation with when he had opened up to me. I forgot. I didn’t even know his name.”

Luskin finally chokes up.

“That’s fucked up,” he says.

The tension is broken when an older man, bald with a goatee, speaks up from across the room.

“Cass, you say that you come here and you get trained to be a great lawyer and you go back to an environment where you can’t be a good lawyer,” says Jon Rapping, president of Gideon’s Promise. “And I want to disagree with that. You’re all great lawyers. You’re not superheroes.”

Rapping, or Rap, as most people affectionately refer to him, was a public defender in Washington, D.C., who moved to Atlanta in 2004 and quickly recognized the deplorable state of indigent defense across the South: mountainous caseloads, overworked attorneys with diminishing resources, courts that had come to accept the substandard representation of poor people as the status quo. Young defenders’ fire for the work was dimming under the stress. In 2007, he and his wife, a schoolteacher, started Gideon’s Promise, which takes its name from Gideon vs. Wainwright — the landmark 1963 United States Supreme Court case that mandated counsel for criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer — to help public defenders fight back.

“If you think of being a good lawyer as being able to represent far too many clients with far too few resources, the way they deserve to be represented, then nobody could be a good lawyer in the places where you choose to work,” Rapping says. “But if you understand that being a good lawyer is caring, is working hard, is doing the best you can do, is giving people the kind of representation they wouldn’t get from another lawyer who has bought into the system who’s resigned to the status quo, who is literally sleepwalking through the system — you’re all good lawyers. Sadly, people come into this work and they have the sensibilities beaten out of them. And they become numb. What inspires me about all of you, and what I love about this session, is that you guys force each other to continue to care. Which means you go back and do as much as you can without allowing yourself to get defeated by the things beyond your control. And when all of you do that, from county to county, parish to parish, state to state, you are making a difference.”

Rapping’s army is growing. What started in 2007 with two offices and an inaugural class of 16 lawyers has expanded to more than 400 lawyers in 40-plus offices across 17 states. In 2014, Rapping won the prestigious $625,000 MacArthur genius grant. The organization is growing so rapidly that it’s getting harder to facilitate the intimate support sessions upon which Gideon’s Promise was built.

Today, Rapping’s words are just what Luskin needed. Emboldened by his support, Luskin wants to leave on a more promising note by sharing a small victory.

“I get a call from the court,” he says. “Judge wants somebody over here for a plea. ‘You need to plead this guy out. First offender. OWI [Operating Vehicle While Intoxicated].’ I was like, ‘Who is he?’ and the [District Attorney] is just like: ‘Do the deal, Cass. Do the deal.’ He’s the last person in that courtroom. And he wants to do it, and everyone wants to do it. And I was like, ‘No. Fuck this.’”

The case turned out to be from 1999. So, much to the DA’s chagrin, Luskin filed a motion to quash, challenging the manner in which his client was served his summons. After an overnight recess to allow the DA to retrieve the case file, they reconvened for the hearing the following morning.

“He comes back in,” Luskin says. “And he’s like: ‘Man, we can’t find the file. So I guess I’ve got to dismiss this case. And I was like, ‘Fuck yeah!’”

Luskin punctuates the exclamation by clapping hands, like a judge’s gavel, bringing some in the gathering to their feet, laughing and applauding.

“That’s one!” Luskin says.