ABOVE PHOTO: Public defender Travis Williams gives closing remarks in court.
(© 2013 HBO Documentary Films)
In 1961 Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for stealing soda and a few dollars from a pool hall. He could not afford an attorney and was convicted after representing himself at trial. Gideon appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, which, in a unanimous decision, ruled that the right to counsel in a criminal case is fundamental to the American system of justice.
More than 12 million people are arrested in the United States each year. Fifty years after the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright case, most of them will be represented by one of the United States’ 15,000 public defenders.
An official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Gideon’s Army follows a group of idealistic young public defenders in the Deep South, where lawyers face particularly difficult challenges due to high bonds, minimum mandatory sentencing and a culture that is traditionally “tough on crime.” Brandy Alexander, Travis Williams and June Hardwick have dedicated themselves to defend those who otherwise would not get representation.
These lawyers contend with a day-to-day life of low pay, long hours and staggering caseloads. Despite these obstacles, with the help of the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC), these young professionals are inspired to take on this unique challenge in the name of public service.
PHOTO: Dawn Porter.
Directed by fellow attorney Dawn Porter, Gideon’s Army follows two young lawyers as they prepare their cases for trial.
Travis Williams is a Gainesville, Ga. lawyer whose client, Branden Lee Mullin, has been accused of armed robbery and faces a minimum of 10 years to a maximum of life in prison. Brandy Alexander has served in both Georgia and Florida as a public defender and is preparing to go to trial on behalf of her client, Demontes Regary Wright, a young man also charged with armed robbery.
The caseloads of these public defenders can be overwhelming: The average caseload for a public defender in Miami Dade County, Fla. at any one time is 500 felonies and 225 misdemeanors. It should come as no surprise that many public defender offices across the nation have an incredibly high turnover rate. The pace is exhausting, and the legal wrangling intense, but these young public defenders persevere. Knowing that the stakes are high – and that their clients’ lives will be deeply affected by what they do or fail to do – they push themselves to their personal limits over and over again. This is why the defense of the indigent of our society is more than a job. It’s a vocational calling.
But does their work have to be this difficult? Experts point to the perfect storm of our nation’s approach to criminal justice as the explanation for the dire state of indigent defense. In many southern states, bonds for misdemeanor crimes are exorbitantly high, as high as $40,000 for misdemeanor crimes like shoplifting, which most defendants cannot afford This leads to the a high rate of pretrial detention for indigent clients, with many serving months or even years in prison without a trial. The third factor is the rate of plea bargaining simply to end pre-trial detention. Notes Brett Willis, a Senior Public Defender featured in the film, “The reality is 90 percent or 95 percent of the people who get charged with something plead guilty… because the system is designed to force them to plead guilty and it punishes their failure to comply.”
In addition to lengthy prison sentences, clients found guilty can face severe civil sanctions, which can result in a litany of extreme punishments, including: losing eligibility for public benefits, such as federal student loans; losing the ability to live in public housing with your family; losing the right to vote; and in some regions, losing the right to hold a driver’s license, which can be a severe obstacle to finding post-incarceration employment.
Along with the perilous circumstances facing the accused, their public defenders are typically up against a multitude of trying professional and personal circumstances, for which no amount of training could prepare them. Notes Williams: “I have huge student loan debt. After I pay my student loans and my rent, all I have left is probably $300 a month to pay extra bills like gas and the car, all that kind of stuff, groceries. But I don’t see how you can do this work for any period of time and not begin to love it. If you don’t, then it’ll just drive you insane.”
These committed young people are backed by mentor Jonathan Rapping, the dynamic leader of the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC), an Atlanta-based organization designed to fill a void in the training currently available to young public defenders. The center offers a comprehensive curriculum designed specifically for public defenders and geared toward the improvement of indigent defense representation and raising the standard of practice in jurisdictions nationwide. The group often provides emotional support in addition to practical instruction as the young public defenders talk about their work and empathize about their similar situations.
As Rapping states in one of their seminars, “This will be a battle that will be won, and your children will look back on this struggle to save people from this unjust, cruel, inhumane criminal justice system. And you all will be the foot soldiers, you will be the ones who brought that about.”
The U.S. incarcerates more citizens annually than any other industrialized nation. At the beginning of 2008, 2.3 million Americans were behind bars, followed by China with 1.5 million. Porter explains, “Americans are fascinated with crime, and yet few know the truth about how the criminal justice system really works. Gideon’s Army presents a rare true look at the criminal justice system from the vantage point of the accused. I wanted to be sure the inspiring, challenging nature of the work these public defenders do – which involves a tremendous amount of personal sacrifice in service to our constitutional rights – was given the attention it deserved.”