While the Sixth Amendment guarantees the “assistance of counsel” for a criminal defendant, it may surprise you to learn that it wasn’t until the 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, where the concept of a public defender became solidified. Prior to the ruling, uneducated, poor or defendants who were otherwise unable to obtain counsel represented themselves. The aforementioned case argued that it was unfair those unfamiliar with the justice system to adequately defend themselves against those who are likely more educated and experienced. The Supreme Court agreed, and it led to the public defence system across the country — varying state-by-state of course — in which a committed team of individuals give individuals the due process the system is supposed to provide. As you might guess, the job is not easy and the structure of the courts and the established routine of how prosecutions and trials play out still leave much to be desired.
Director Dawn Porter was a former attorney herself, before becoming a producer/writer/director. In “Gideon’s Army” she takes the camera with a knowing insight behind the office and courtroom doors of three members of the Southern Public Defender Training Center, who are doing what they can to work within a system that is broken, unfair and unjust. Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick provide the focus of the film, and they are keen examples of people fighting the good fight, but with very little to bring home materially or emotionally in reward. Pay is low, the case load measures into the hundreds and resources are meager, but perhaps most crucially the system not only disproportionately ensnares minorities and those with few financial resources, it’s almost gamed to make them victims before the process even starts. Many are unable to make basic bail, thus forcing them to spend months in jail just to wait for a trial or hearing, only to then be faced with the decision to plead out for a lesser sentence, because they could be faced with a longer stint in jail after a full trial. And as mentioned, a public defender isn’t always able to devote the kind of time necessary to mount a proper defence.
Given all of these odds, with a job that is often frustrating, unfulfilling and disheartening, it’s a miracle that people like Travis Williams endure. Coming from a background that found him abandoned by his mother with his grandparents, and never knowing who his real father was, his personal connection to many of his cases — involving people from similarly disenfranchised backgrounds — is deeply felt. So powerful is his sense of responsibility that he has taken to tattooing the names of those he lost cases for on his back so he can forever carry that weight. It’s an intense fire that burns within Travis, and we see it on display in “Gideon’s Army,” and in his passionate defense of a young man, who spent his life knocking around foster homes before being taken in by a gay couple, accused of armed robbery. He’s just at the start of his life but this case comes with a mandatory minimum of ten years, and before he’s even hit his twenties, his future could be forever altered — all for $94, in a case where the prosecution is pressing forward even without any hard evidence.
Brandy Alexander meanwhile, finds her commitment to her office wavering. Whilst she believes in representing those who the system has damaged or wronged, there are other times when she feels nothing for the clients she’s forced to sit beside in a courtroom. She recounts one man, accused of raping his daughter, who gleefully described to her with pride exactly what he did to her. And there’s another who literally puts her life in danger. Stress has caused her hair to fall out, and if that’s not enough, we witness her putting $3 of gas in her car, hoping it’ll last until the end of the week when she gets paid. But like Travis she can’t look away when a case involving a young man whom she believes didn’t do the crime he’s accused of, faces a trial that could derail some of the changes he’s made to put his bad decisions and troubled life behind him and back on the right track. And even June Hardwick, whose journey finds her giving up the full time gig of being a public defender, doesn’t stay out of that world entirely.
If “Gideon’s Army” underscores anything it’s that the right to counsel is being following in America by the letter of the law, but not the spirit. The idea is that everyone should be able to have their day in court, living up to the ideal of “innocent until proven guilty.” But the already burdened system, intensely focused of processing the millions arrested each year, instead of giving them due process, still leaves much to be desired in the five decades that have passed since Gideon v. Wainwright. Porter’s film is not just a stirring testament to those taking on a Herculean task of bringing some sense of fairness and balance to an out of whack structure, but a reminder that there is still a far distance to go before everyone is equally represented in front of lady justice. [B]
“Gideon’s Army” airs tonight on HBO at 9 PM.