Book Review – “Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned” by Richard S. Jaffe

“Quest for Justice” by Richard S. Jaffe is certain to join the ranks of recent criminal defense nonfiction classics such as “Dead Man Walking” by Sister Helen Prejean; “An Innocent Man” by John Grisham; and “Actual Innocence” by Peter Neufeld, Barry Scheck, and Jim Dwyer. “Quest for Justice” belongs in this company because it is every bit as well-written and powerful as these three books, and because Jaffe is a giant in the field of death penalty litigation.

“Quest for Justice” describes some of the death penalty cases that Jaffe has handled in the state of Alabama. Jaffe has worked on more than sixty death penalty cases, in addition to countless other major felonies. Two of his clients were profiled in the Broadway play, “The Exonerated.” and Jaffe also represented Eric Rudolph, who was charged with several abortion clinic bombings in the South, as well as with the deaths in the Olympic Park bombings during the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta.

Unlike many books by trial lawyers, “Quest for Justice” is not mostly about the lawyer; rather, it is about the clients — Jaffe’s ego is absent. His book gives us only the basic biographical details and quickly launches into the stories of his death penalty cases.

Jaffe is a warrior without being self-righteous. He is against the death penalty, not only because he believes that it is immoral, but because it does not work — it never has and never will deter murder — and Jaffe makes a cogent case for this view.

If, like me, you read many books about our criminal justice system, then, after a time, you think you’ve read it all — stories about jailhouse snitches; faulty eyewitness identifications; prosecutors who withhold evidence; defense attorneys who are ineffective because they are inexperienced, unmotivated, or overwhelmed; a death penalty lottery in which a disproportionately high number of African-Americans lose; mentally ill defendants who are mistreated or undertreated by the system — the list goes on. What makes “Quest for Justice” stand out, and be more than a catalogue of the deficiencies in the criminal justice system or a collection of war stories, is that it provides a good deal of explanation and analysis of how the criminal justice system works — or doesn’t work. And Jaffe’s explanations and analyses are neither tedious nor patronizing.

Moreover, the characters in “Quest for Justice” come alive. For me, the most colorful — and frightening — character in the book is Alabama Judge Jack Montgomery. He is an old-school judge who figured in many of Jaffe’s cases. Judge Montgomery demeaned both defendants and their attorneys, and he made no effort to hide his prejudices. As the years went by, it became apparent to the courthouse regulars that he was not merely offensive, but unbalanced and crooked. The judge even pulled a gun in open court on Jaffe, and had to be wrestled to the ground by his staff. He was finally convicted of soliciting and taking bribes.

If you do not have time to read the entire book (although it is well-written, it is not a light read), read the chapter on Jaffe’s representation of Eric Rudolph. There you get a glimpse of Jaffe’s commitment to his client as well as insights into the mind and motivation of someone accused of the most hideous of crimes. Jaffe spent countless hours talking with Rudolph and learning of such things as the death of Rudolph’s father, the suicide of his former girlfriend, his experiences in the Army, and his mother’s religious influence on him. Jaffe’s diligence in doing this research was vital to representing Rudolph effectively. Ultimately, Rudolph pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Criminal defense lawyers are constantly asked, “How can you defend those people?” Jaffe’s comment about Eric Rudloph’s case provides the perfect answer:

“Eric Rudolph embodied one of the reasons why I do what I do. Representing the most unpopular and despised of our society is, in my opinion, the hallmark of a true criminal defense lawyer. John Adams did this when he defended the British soldiers who shot their weapons openly into the crowd during the Boston Massacre. When advocating for someone this unpopular we are also representing our profession, which is committed to safeguarding the rights of the least among us and the constitutional protections that everyone has, no matter what he is charged with or what his beliefs are.”

“Quest for Justice” can be read and enjoyed by lawyers and non-lawyers alike. But, more importantly, it should be read by everyone who cares about the criminal justice system.

Note: A version of this review will appear in the May 2012 edition of The Federal Lawyer.

Second Note: Mr. Jaffe and I both serve on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).

Source:, published on Monday, March 5th, 2012 at 5:11 pm

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