Chasing Gideon

There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.

—Hugo Black, U.S. Supreme Court Justice

About the Book

On March 18th, 1963, in one of its most significant legal decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that all defendants facing significant jail time have the constitutional right to a free attorney if they cannot afford their own. Fifty years later, 80 percent of criminal defendants are served by public defenders. In a book that combines the sweep of history with the intimate details of individual lives and legal cases, veteran reporter Karen Houppert movingly chronicles the stories of people in all parts of the country who have relied on Gideon’s promise.

There is the harrowing saga of a young man who is charged with involuntary vehicular homicide in Washington State, where overextended public defenders juggle impossible caseloads, forcing his defender to go to court to protect her own right to provide an adequate defense. In Florida, Houppert describes a public defender’s office, loaded with upward of seven hundred cases per attorney, and discovers the degree to which Clarence Earl Gideon’s promise is still unrealized. In New Orleans, Houppert follows the case of a man imprisoned for twenty-seven years for a crime he didn’t commit, finding a public defense system near collapse before Katrina, and chronicling the harrowing months after the storm, during which overworked volunteers and students struggled to get the system working again. In Georgia, Houppert finds a mentally disabled man who is to be executed for murder, despite the best efforts of a dedicated but severely overworked and underfunded capital defender. Half a century after Anthony Lewis’s award-winning Gideon’s Trumpet brought us the story of the court case that changed the American justice system, Chasing Gideon is a crucial book that provides essential reckoning of our attempts to implement this fundamental constitutional right.

Discussion Guide

View the book’s discussion guide and download the discussion group toolkit to help create a book event.

Lesson plan

Are you a high school social studies or language arts teacher? Check out Street Law’s Chasing Gideon lesson plan.

Plan an event

Interested in planning an event with the book’s author? Check out the downloadable toolkit for assistance.


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About the Author

Photo by: Tania Karpekina

Photo by: Tania Karpekina

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. For media inquiries or to book a speaking event with Karen Houppert, contact Julie McCarroll, Director of Publicity and Marketing, at publicity@thenewpress.com.