“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” How often have we heard these words on television and never given them a moment’s thought? Perhaps, like me, you believed, “Great…if I get into trouble and don’t have money for a lawyer, I’ll still be able to get one.” As the sobering, but inspirational documentary, “Gideon’s Army,” points out, if you are an indigent, you better hope that you run into trouble in DC and not in the South or other parts of the country, because not all public defender offices are created equally.
“Gideon’s Army,” produced and directed by Dawn Porter, tells us that in 1963 the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon vs. Wainwright, that in felony cases people who could not afford a lawyer must be provided one. As a result, public defender offices were created to defend poor people charged with serious crimes. Unfortunately, the conditions that many public defenders face on a daily basis have lessened the promise of that ruling. According to the film the DC culture expects the best from public defenders, whereas in other areas, the poor are just processed through the system.
Screened during the AFI Docs Film Festival, “Gideon’s Army” follows three public defenders practicing in three different offices in the South. Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick represent most public defenders in that part of the country—practicing extremely long hours for very low pay. The caseload for each is unbelievably high—as many as 180 clients at one time. Against this backdrop Gideon’s Promise, formerly known as the Southern Public Defender Training Center, was founded by Jonathan Rapping, to provide training and support for public defenders. We learn from Rapping and the other lawyers that every year hundreds of poor people are crammed through a justice system stretched to the max. In addition, many innocent people spend years in prison.
While the three featured lawyers and their respective clients each have compelling stories, I found Travis’ personal story to be the most gripping. Although he has a girlfriend, he seemingly has no life. He lives next door to his office. His office wall is filled with his acquittals. And the losses? The names are tattooed on his back, so that, in his words, “they are always with me.” Right now his back has five names. Because he does much of his own investigative work he believes that he “is more like Matlock than F. Lee Bailey.” Even though Travis seems to take his life as a public defender in stride, an anticipated meeting with his biological father throws him for a loop and gives us better insight into what makes him tick.
We watch as just the emotional support of Gideon’s Promise can mean so much to lawyers dedicating their lives to represent the poor. As someone who has served on several DC juries, I have witnessed firsthand the terrific work of public defenders. I assumed all jurisdictions provided the same remarkable service. I know now that my assumption was wrong. The hearts and commitments of the lawyers are equal, but the support from the jurisdictions is not. One can only hope that changes. By highlighting the work of Gideon’s Promise, “Gideon’s Army” is doing all it can to make change happen sooner, rather than later.
“Gideon’s Army” can be seen on HBO beginning July 1.