In the People’s Court: David Feige

Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

After law school, David Feige turned down Dewey Ballantine for a $29,500 public-defender job representing indigent clients who faced everything from trespassing misdemeanors to murder charges. Now he’s written Indefensible, a book that makes the Bronx Criminal Court look like Kafka’s Castle. He spoke with Boris Kachka.

The most indefensible acts in Indefensible are committed by judges—and you use their real names. What did Little, Brown’s lawyers make of that?
The feedback I’ve gotten was that this was obviously written by a lawyer. I’m very conscious about where those lines were. But I named these names for a reason. These judges spend all their time yammering on about personal responsibility, but they are petrified to take responsibility for what they do.

Yet they get promoted. Whom do you blame for that?
There is this incredible pressure to sentence harshly, to convict. I blame in large measure the New York Post, and the entire movement toward the politicization of the judiciary in junk justice columns. I saw a Post columnist once, and I said, “You have no idea how much damage you do to the world.”

Was it Andrea Peyser?
Yes. And she is gracious, I give her that. She could have walked away and just said, “You’re an asshole,” but she didn’t.

Your book is chock-full of wronged clients. Surely they can’t all be innocent?
I pull no punches about the fact that many of my clients are guilty and I like them anyway.

You rail against all the petty cases clogging up the system. But aren’t these “quality-of-life” convictions now validated as a successful approach to curbing crime?
I’m sure there’s some validity to it. I would, however, question the cost. If you did to the dorm at Columbia what they do to projects in the Bronx—if you did a vertical sweep and started throwing every kid in the hallway up against the wall—the phone at the mayor’s office would be ringing off the hook.

So the “broken windows” theory doesn’t work?
I’m saying, if they notice a spider crack in the Bronx, that’s a broken window. They drive by a shattered window on Park Avenue, that’s just somebody who’s going to call the super.

You’ve counseled innocent people to plead guilty. That sounds very cynical.
A disproportionate number of innocent people go to trial because they’re naïve. There is this deep belief in justice that I spend a lot of my time fighting, frankly.

With all the Law & Orders, are you surprised there’s not a hot public-defender show?
I want to change that, and I’m talking to a bunch of people. A very big Hollywood producer told me, “I have serious doubts, given how the public feels about your clients, they’d ever be willing to buy into a PD show.” I don’t think that’s right. I think that somewhere in the Zeitgeist there is a deep longing for a new perspective—not just jut-jawed prosecutors and gimlet-eyed cops.

Little, Brown, 288 pages

In the People’s Court: David Feige