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Originally published Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 6:06 AM

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‘Chasing Gideon’: shocking failures of the justice system in defending the poor

Karen Houppert’s new book, “Chasing Gideon,” chronicles the shocking shortcomings of the criminal justice system in representing low-income defendants. She uses two cases in Washington state counties to make her case.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice’

by Karen Houppert

New Press, 288 pp., $26.95

In the abstract, “everybody knows” that low-income individuals charged with committing serious crimes rarely receive good representation because court-appointed lawyers (usually public defenders) are inexperienced, underpaid and overworked.

When the abstraction becomes reality involving flesh-and-blood male and female defendants with lots to lose, the shortcomings of the criminal justice system become shockingly clear.

Journalist Karen Houppert, in her investigative book “Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice,” replaces the abstraction with two true-crime sagas set in Washington State — Spokane County and Grant County, to be precise. The protagonist/defendant in Spokane County is Sean Replogle, a high school senior age 18 when his life changed for the worse. Sean resided with his widowed father and younger sister, and they barely got by financially. But Sean had saved enough money to purchase a 13-year-old car to drive to school and a job at McDonald’s.

On October 20, 2001, Sean was driving his car when it and another car collided at an intersection. Sean and his teenage friend did not sustain serious injury. The driver of the other car was Lowell Stack, age 85. His elderly wife and his daughter accompanied him. It appeared they would all survive after medical treatment. But seven days later, Lowell Stack died in the hospital.

Although it is not obvious from the information presented in the book which of the two drivers was most responsible for the accident, there is reason to believe Sean Replogle had done nothing felonious while driving. The police and the prosecutor decided he was a murderer. After being charged, Replogle ended up with Carol Dee Huneke, a Spokane County public defender, as his lawyer.

Huneke was a devoted, talented public defender, but so overwhelmed with a case load totaling 101 clients that she wondered how she could represent Replogle adequately. What happens to her and her client I will let readers learn on their own; otherwise I would be serving as a reviewer who spoils suspense.

In the Grant County case from Moses Lake, Houppert focuses on public defender Douglas Anderson, who inadequately represented a 12-year-old boy accused by a 5-year-old neighbor of sexual misconduct. Houppert portrays Anderson as the polar opposite of the highly capable, deeply caring Huneke. The Washington Supreme Court eventually found that Anderson provided counsel that failed to meet minimum standards. That ruling played a role in somewhat more reasonable case loads for public defenders across Washington.

While unraveling the Spokane County and Grant County cases, Houppert refers to a Seattle Times investigation published during April 2004 that brilliantly revealed the shortcomings of the public defender system by focusing on Grant County. The newspaper series, Houppert says, “shined a rare spotlight on indigent defense, and a shocked public — and legal community — finally insisted that something had to be done.”

In her compelling, deeply researched book, Houppert insists that something must be done in every state to improve indigent defense so that it meets standards set out by the U.S. Supreme Court 50 years ago in a complaint filed by a Florida inmate named Clarence Earl Gideon, who is memorialized in the title of Houppert’s expose.

As a freelance journalist, I write about the criminal justice system regularly. In most jurisdictions, I see little evidence to suggest that state supreme courts and legislatures will ever provide adequate resources for public defenders. Maybe Houppert’s book will spawn a turnaround.

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