As a criminal defense attorney, there is nothing scarier than knowing your client is innocent. Especially in a case where the government might seek the death penalty. Few people have experienced that special form of horror – Steve Wax did. Twice. Within a period of less than four years. And (spoiler alert) both of his clients ultimately walked free despite being persecuted and prosecuted by a government caught up in the post-9/11 zealotry that ensnared far too many innocent people both at home and abroad.
In the dual narrative of Kafka Comes to America: Fighting for Justice in the War on Terror – A Public Defender’s Inside Account, Wax tells the story of Brandon Mayfield, an attorney in Portland, Oregon who is arrested as a ‘material witness’ after an FBI agent erroneously identifies his fingerprint as a match for one found on a bag associated with a terrorist bombing of trains in Madrid, Spain. Mayfield’s home is searched surreptitiously, his computers and client files are confiscated, his family left terrified as he spends more than two weeks in jail – not accused of a crime, but held as a victim in the Bush Administration’s “war on terror.”
While what happened to Mayfield, an American citizen, was horrible, the other story that Wax tells is almost unimaginable. Adel Hamad was a humanitarian hospital administrator from Sudan who, along with his wife and four daughters, had been living and working in Pakistan when he was seized by U. S. government operatives. He spent years in custody, first in Afghanistan, then in Guantánamo, and was never told why he was being held. Hamad suffered through dozens of interrogations and was held in isolation with no contact with his family, or anybody outside of Guantánamo. Although he did not suffer the physical torture that many other Guantánamo detainees did, he was, nonetheless, tortured by our government’s actions. Years of the unknown – courts that never ruled on anything,held in a prison that existed to hold people indefinitely, with neither charge nor trial. The details of Guantánamo are chilling – and should give every American pause: in Guantánamo, our government has abandoned its constitutional underpinnings in a way that we may never recover from.
Steve Wax tells the stories of his representation of Brandon Mayfield and Adel Hamad with clarity and insight. He never overstates the case – but never lets the government off the hook for their misconduct. Wax also describes with remarkable accuracy the life of a public defender fighting to preserve the rule of law in a Kafka-esque environment. It is chilling in its accuracy and yet heartening in the passion displayed.
It would be easy to read this book and suggest that it is a less complicated story because the clients Wax writes about are innocent. And that is, to some extent, true. It is easier to be outraged at the government’s misconduct when the client is innocent. But Wax built a career ensuring that not only the innocent received his most vigorous defense, but, that all of his clients did. I got to see that first hand during the almost five years I worked for him as an Assistant Federal Public Defender. His commitment to the rule of law permeated everything he did and everything he taught to those of us luckily enough to work with him. As he states in Kafka: “We want to heed the call to action implicit” in Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Wax goes further: “The need for compassion and desire to fight injustice were huge before 9/11. They are more needed now.” Kafka Comes to America is an eloquent explanation of why.