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Judgment Days: 'Gideon's Army' Follows the Lives of Public Defenders

By Tracie Lewis

Imagine if the subjects from the films The Central Park Five and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills had been represented by the relentless, impassioned public defenders featured in Dawn Porter's documentary Gideon's Army. The respective fates of these defendants might have been different.

In the film, public defenders Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick demonstrate an awe-inspiring commitment to their work. Williams believes that if he posts all acquittals on his office walls to display the wins, he must carry the burden of not winning a case by tattooing the last names of the client on his back. Alexander learns that her client who is charged with murder is actually planning her murder if she doesn't win his case—this is after she makes several visits to jail at his request, despite knowing there is no new information. Hardwick works on up to 150 cases at a time, treating clients as if they are family members, and barely earns enough money to support herself and her young son. These attorneys may seem naïve and unjaded, but they are, in fact, true heroes to their clients.


Public defender Brandy Alexander (right) with her client. From Dawn Porter's Gideon's Army. (c) 2013 HBO Documentary Films


A public defender is employed by the government to defend someone who is accused of a crime, but unable to afford a lawyer. But this was not always the case. Before 1963, impoverished people could defend themselves but were not automatically assigned a lawyer to represent their case if they could not afford one, unless there was a special circumstance. According to the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, Charles Gideon was charged with a felony for breaking into a Florida pool room. Unable to afford an attorney, he represented himself, and was found guilty. In his 1964 book Gideon's Trumpet, Anthony Lewis writes that Gideon composed a petition in jail to the US Supreme Court, stating that it "just was not fair" that he had no lawyer at his trial. His petition was granted and he was later retried with a court-appointed lawyer and was found not guilty. 

It's been 50 years since that decision, and the public defenders in Gideon's Army serve their indigent clients with passion, honor and pride, and deference to the ruling that made their jobs possible. These attorneys, barely in their 30s, also carry the heavy burden of student loans, long hours, limited resources and low pay. 

Other contributing factors to the hardship of the profession are laws that seem to keep poorer citizens at a disadvantage. With a growing number of defendants found guilty each year, the prison population continues to grow rapidly, while resources steadily decline. And not everyone will benefit from having a Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander or June Hardwick to fight for their constitutional rights. Fewer lawyers stay in these jobs for very long, and more innocent people continue to go to jail.


Public defender June Hardwick signs in at Jackson County Jail in Jackson, MS. (c) 2013 HBO Documentary Films


What drives public defenders to continue to work under these circumstances? Perhaps Jonathan Rapping, featured in the film, is one reason. He is the founder of the Southern Public Defender Training Center (now called Gideon's Promise). Rapping runs the only center of this kind, dedicated to mentoring and supporting public defenders. Giving encouragement to one subject in the film, Rapping says, "If you try to rescue people from hell, you do have to go to hell to do it, right? If you don't, you won't rescue anyone." Dawn Porter was invited to film the training session in Birmingham, Alabama, and she met her three main subjects there. 

Porter understands the role of lawyers and the pressures that come with the job. Prior to her filmmaking career, she was a civil litigator for a national firm in Washington, DC. Five years later, Henry Hoeberman, currently the lead lawyer for the Motion Picture Association of America, invited her to work at ABC News as in-house counsel. Porter subsequently transitioned into News Standards and Practices for ABC News, and eventually to A&E. By this time, she knew she wanted to make films. "I was a VP at a cable network and I knew no one would hire me," Porter recalls. "I had no production experience, so I decided I had to do it myself." 

Porter feels her litigation background was a great training ground for filmmaking. "Every time you write a brief, you are telling a story," she explains. "You are putting together a narrative to convince somebody of your position. In some ways, documentary is the same way. We think we have a truth we want to explain, and we figure out how to tell a story to explain that." Having legal experience came in handy when she needed to file a motion to get access to film in court; she didn't have to hire someone else to do it.

Another key factor for Porter getting her film made was her participation in the Sundance Institute Documentary Editing Lab, which included such veteran editors Kate Amend and Lewis Erskine as advisors. Porter describes the 10 days as "amazing edit sessions. Lewis worked with us, and we got exactly what we wanted to convey."

The challenge still continues and the hope is that Gideon's Army will advance conversations about instigating change in the legal system, particularly when it comes to the career of the public defender. "Every system is different in every state, so it's hard to have a national solution," Porter notes. In addition, Porter would like to help effect reform in the repayment plans for Federal student loans, given the low compensation of public defenders.

The Ford Foundation has given a grant for Porter to partner with colleges, law schools and universities to help expand the dialog. There are also plans to collaborate with the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations to do community screenings and outreach. The website Gideon at 50 is set to launch soon. 


Grafitti in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. (c) 2013 Dawn Porter


Gideon's Army has garnered impressive accolades on the festival circuit thus far; editor Matthew Hamachek earned an Editing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and the film won both an Audience Award and the Knight Grand Jury Prize at the Miami International Film Festival. 

Gideon's Army premieres July 1 on HBO.

Tracie Lewis is a writer and producer.