Karyn Spencer’s Coroner’s Report, Amy Bach’s Ordinary Injustice.

Amy Bach identifies many flaws in the state criminal  trial system.

Amy Bach identifies many flaws in the state criminal trial system.

Last year, Omaha World-Herald reporter,  Dart Center Ochberg Fellow and friend Karyn Spencer did a massive series on coroners in Nebraska.

The project had several striking findings.

In many cases, coroners were county attorneys who had absolutely no training in their newly appointed field.

There was no required training.

The law governing coroner policy in Nebraska had essentially been unaltered since 1917.

The series hit hard and prompted changes, with mandatory training being one of the most significant ones.

Spencer talked briefly and in typically humorous fashion about her work at this past weekend’s Dart Society reunion in Indianapolis. 

One aspect she emphasized was the thoroughly entrenched acceptance of competely untrained people serving in this important public position.

Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated instance.

In her new book, Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court, writer and lawyer Amy Bach identifies four different aspects of America’s state criminal courts in which the ideals of justice, and many of the nation’s citizens, are very poorly served.

In successive chapters, Bach takes on public defense, excessive bail and denial of representation, dropped cases and misplaced prosecutorial zeal that ignores the facts and unfairly leads to innocent people spending decades behind bars. 

Bach spent eight years researching her work, each section of which is set in a different part of the United States.  By moving from small-town Georgia to upstate New York to Mississippi and Chicago, she effectively illustrates the problem’s national scope.

Bach’s book also impressively demonstrates that these systemic failures go beyond the work of an individual with lots of power and plenty of bad intentions.  

In the first chapter, for example, she writes about Robert Surrency, a public defender who actions illustrate much of what is wrong with public defense while working in Greene County, Georgia, but who finds new life and professional vigor when he is employed in another office. 

Rather, she paints a picture of continual compromise of individuals’ rights and undermining of the system’s integrity. 

This tendency and accompanying murky picture is painted particularly well in the second chapter, which focuses primarily on Judge Hank Bauer in Troy, New York.   Almost universally respected by prosecutors, public defenders, and defendants alike, Bauer was eventually shown to have imposed inordinately high bails on many occasions and also to have denied people their right to representation. 

The Bauer chapter boost Bach’s credibility because it demonstrates her obvious outrage is tempered with a willingness to present not so much opposing information, but a fuller portrait of the context in which he and the other players in this legal drama perform.

Bach’s ability to drop in the evolution of legal doctrines while advancing the narrative also enhances her book’s stature, as does her pointing out numerous people and organizations like Stephen Bright and the Southern Center for Human Rights who are involved in reform efforts. 

At the same time, Bach is more skilled in pointing out problems than in identifying solutions.  She writes in the conclusion about establishing external monitoring system and talking through metrics by which lawyers and judges could be evaluated-a surprisingly tepid proposal after such a thorough exposition of the many ways in which the system is failing, if not completely broken.

An uninspiring end does not negate the value of all that came before it. 

Like Spencer in Nebraska, Bach has provided a thorough, lucid and eminently readable account of the state criminal court’s many failings and their impact on the people who appear in them.   This reader emerged more informed and wanting to learn more, even if Bach’s call to action sounded a less dramatic note than her depiction of the system’s problems.


2 responses to “Karyn Spencer’s Coroner’s Report, Amy Bach’s Ordinary Injustice.

  1. I was moved by Bach’s gift for relating citizens’ stories and her lucid explanation of the law. Her argument for the evaluation of legal professionals on par with that of teachers and cardiac surgeons was at once bold (since this has never been ventured) and nuanced as it resists one size fits all answers. This book is a call to action and Bach lays out a compelling roadmap for intervention.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Rick, for your comment. I agree with you about Bach’s skill at weaving together citizens’ stories and an explanation of the law. I understand where you are coming from in supporting her call to action; I simply thought the compelling argument she laid out called for more drastic action.

      Thanks again. I look forward to continuing the conversation.


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