This year marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court decision: Gideon v. Wainwright in which the justices ruled, unanimously, that defendants in criminal cases deserved legal representation in state courts. If defendants could not afford counsel, the state would have to provide it. Those lawyers are known as public defenders. A new HBO documentary, Gideon’s Army, follows three black public defenders working in the Deep South. It airs on Monday.
Dawn Porter, the film’s director, says there’s a two-tiered criminal justice system. One for haves, one for have-nots. She says the administration of equal justice under the law is the Civil Rights issue of our time, one she’s doesn’t think enough people are talking about.
And Porter says she didn’t plan for all three of her characters to be African American, it just worked out that way. “I think there are a number of really fine films that make a very explicit racial argument,” says Porter. “My goal with this film was to focus very intently on the experience of the lawyer.” She says the lawyers in her film represent three types of public defenders.
The Warrior: Travis Williams
“They like to fight, they’re positive of everything, they are purists, ‘you defend anybody, bring it, I don’t care what the case is, I don’t care what the circumstance is,’” says Porter.
When we meet Travis Williams, the first lawyer in Gideon’s Army, he’s giving an impassioned closing argument on behalf of his client, Jacquise Welchell, who has been accused of false imprisonment and battery. Williams reminds the jury that the burden rests on the State to prove his guilt: “that’s the beauty of this system,” he says. “It’s designed to give people the presumption of innocence!” Williams frames his wins and mounts them on a wall. Losses he tattoos on his back. Eight clients’ names so far.
And, he says as long as he’s a lawyer, he’ll be a public defender. “I was growing up and having encounters with the police where I felt like they weren’t treating me fairly or treating people in the neighborhood fairly,” says Williams. “I knew I wanted to be somebody who could prevent that from happening.”
That said, Williams doesn’t think the criminal justice system disenfranchises people based on race. He says where he practices (Hall County, Georgia) most of his clients are poor and white. “I’ve been poor and black,” says Williams. “And, I know that’s not an attractive place to be, but I think it’s really a socio-economic thing.”
Often the bail bonds for his clients are so high they can’t pay to get out of jail, so they stay locked up awaiting trial for weeks, sometimes months. This can result in the loss of jobs, homes, cars, you name it. In the film, the public defenders make plea deal after plea deal to stop long pre-trial detentions or get around long mandatory minimum sentences. Very few of their cases make it all the way to a jury trial.
The Pragmatist: June Harwick
Hardwick plays a minor role in the documentary. She represents the public defender doing the best she can with very few resources. Hardwick is trying hard to balance her work life and her home life. She cares about her clients, but understands and accepts the constraints of the system. (Hardwick recently left the law to go into politics.)
The Empathizer: Brandy Alexander
In Gideon’s Army, you watch Alexander struggle with the nature of her work. She’s having a difficult time reconciling the fact that her job can mean defending a child rapist she knows is guilty (because he bragged to her about it) on one day and on another, a 17 year old boy (Demontes Wright) who she doesn’t want go to prison. (Wright’s charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault and facing a 10 year mandatory minimum sentence.)
There’s a scene in the film where Alexander is describing the case, flipping through the laminated pages of a 3-ring binder, and when she arrives at Demontes Wright’s photo she stops, her voice cracking, “win lose or draw, tears will fall, because this kid is…I don’t think he’s guilty. I don’t, I think he’s innocent,” she says.
Director Dawn Porter says by focusing on public defenders and the relationships with their clients, she hopes her audience will see the criminal justice system from the perspective of the accused. “People who might have walked across the street from Demontes if they saw him walking toward him on a dark night and all they saw was a black kid. When they’re watching Demontes in the movie, they’re cheering for him,” she says. “And that gives me a lot of hope.”