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.”
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