Journalist Van Meter’s excellent debut revisits Duncan v. Louisiana, the landmark 1968 Supreme Court decision affirming that the constitutional right to a trial by jury applied to state courts. The case originated in the 1966 arrest of a 19-year-old black man for allegedly striking a white boy in Plaquemines Parish, La. Convicted of misdemeanor battery, Gary Duncan was sentenced to 60 days in prison but appealed on the basis that Louisiana’s trial jury statutes violated his Sixth Amendment rights. As the appeal worked its way to the Supreme Court (where Duncan’s conviction was overturned), forces aligned with local political boss Leander Perez (“the most notorious racist in the state”) fought to have Duncan’s attorney barred from Louisiana courtrooms for practicing law without a state license—a legal strategy designed to blunt the effectiveness of civil rights lawyers across the South. Van Meter makes great use of interviews and oral histories to bring the case’s major players to life, and readers will be struck by how many of the issues involved—voter suppression, public funding for private schools, racial inequalities in the criminal justice system—are still being legislated today. This deeply researched and vividly written chronicle is the definitive account of one of the civil rights movement’s most unheralded victories. (May)
A Library Journal 2020 Title to Watch
An Observer Best Book of the Spring
One of Publishers Weekly's Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2020
"A seminal work of impeccable scholarship."Library Journal, starred
"Excellent debut...readers will be struck by how many of the issues involved-voter suppression, public funding for private schools, racial inequalities in the criminal justice system-are still being legislated today."Publisher Weekly, starred review
"An examination of a
1966 racial confrontation and its aftermath, which "would help dismantle the infrastructure of white supremacy that had strangled [a rural Louisiana]
community for centuries". . . Will appeal to admirers of Bryan Stevenson
. . . Timely reading."Kirkus
"Matthew Van Meter dives into great detail through interviews, research and a rich knowledge of the law to reveal the society as well as the men subject to a justice system in need of systemic change."Observer
"Deep Delta Justice is an uncommonly good true story told uncommonly well. Based on extensive reporting and first-rate historical research, it presents an unforgettable account of a landmark civil rights lawsuit that culminated in a Supreme Court decision affirming the right to a jury trial in most criminal cases. Van
Meter's narrative, which takes more twists and turns than the Mississippi, is suspenseful, infuriating, and sometimes funny. This is a wonderful book,
worthy of a permanent place in the literature of the American civil rights movement."Patricia O'Toole, The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made and When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House
"Deep Delta Justice provides the arresting, astonishing history of a racial conflict that began on Louisiana's backroads and resulted in a momentous Supreme Court victory for all Americans. Pairing an investigative journalist's probing research with a novelist's eye for detail, Matthew Van Meter offers the definitive backstory of an all-too-often overlooked civil rights milestone."Justin Driver, Yale Law School, author of The Schoolhouse Gate
"In the spirit of Melissa Fay Greene's classic Praying
For Sheetrock, Matthew Van Meter takes readers to one of the most indelible yet obscure battlegrounds of the Civil Rights Movement and shows how grassroots heroism can topple even one of segregation's most fearsome tyrants."
Samuel G. Freedman, Columbia University Professor of Journalism, author of Breaking the Line
"In his vivid new book Matthew Van Meter takes us into the world of injustice Jim Crow created,
where the smallest of touches could destroy a man's life. From that darkness he draws an absorbing story of courage, resistance, and the promise of profound change. Read Deep Delta Justice for the history it recovers - and the hope it holds for our own dark time."Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age
In Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish during the summer of 1966, 19-year-old Gary Duncan witnessed a group of white boys harassing his two cousins. He attempted to calm the scene by lightly touching the arm of one of the boys who, in turn, feigned injury. That evening, Duncan was arrested and charged with battery. From this point, journalist Van Meter masterfully traces the career of aspiring Jewish corporate lawyer Richard Sobol, who temporarily leaves a prominent Washington law firm to join fellow attorneys in New Orleans on Duncan's behalf. Duncan and Sobol successfully carry their appeals to the Supreme Court on the issue of denial of trial by jury in Duncan's misdemeanor charge. They eventually win, and Duncan v. Louisiana (1968) establishes the constitutional right to jury trial in minor wrongdoing cases involving disproportionately higher penalties. VERDICT A seminal work of impeccable scholarship. Recommended to all working in the intersections of law, criminal justice, and social activism, along with readers of African American history and Southern history. Also see the documentary feature film A Crime on the Bayou (2020), in development with Augusta Films and HBO, which follows Duncan's story. [See Prepub Alert, 11/4/19.]—John Carver Edwards, formerly with Univ. of Georgia Libs.
An examination of a 1966 racial confrontation and its aftermath, which “would help dismantle the infrastructure of white supremacy that had strangled [a rural Louisiana] community for centuries.”
Van Meter, a Detroit-based journalist who is an assistant director of that city’s Shakespeare in Prison project, describes an altercation between two black high school students and four white students. It took place in Plaquemines Parish, a bayou community already infamous for its virulent racism, in large part because of the bigoted politician who ruled the area, Leander H. Perez, who “hurled himself bodily at challenges, heedless of opposition or difficulty.” The criminal case that resulted from the incident, which received a push from Perez, involved Gary Duncan, 19 at the time. On Oct. 18, 1966, Duncan noticed the two black students while driving out of town. Sensing that the white students might attack them, Duncan stopped his car and defused the situation, lightly touching the arm of one of the white boys before driving off. That moment, writes the author in this readable legal and civil rights history, “marked the beginning of one of the most important—and improbable criminal cases in history.” Duncan was charged with assault. Through a series of unlikely connections, he found 28-year-old Richard Sobol, a white attorney visiting Louisiana to work on civil rights litigation while on a brief break from his corporate firm in Washington, D.C. White lawyers in the area, pushed by Perez, become so enraged at Sobol that they attempted to ban him from practicing law in the state, but Sobol prevailed. The federal court in New Orleans ruled that the prosecution “can only be interpreted as harassment” and “was meant to show Richard that civil rights lawyers were not welcome in the parish and their defense of Negroes…would not be tolerated.” Though not as revelatory as Just Mercy, this will appeal to admirers of Bryan Stevenson and similar crusaders.
Timely reading as Americans continue to reckon with an unreliable, sometimes racist criminal justice system.