I frequently tell my colleagues at the public defender’s office that they are doing the Lord’s work. They handle many of the toughest criminal cases, and do so while getting paid less than they should: even less than the prosecutors working across the aisle. The clients often don’t like them, don’t trust them, and sometimes even work against them (when they aren’t threatening them). And not only do they have the toughest cases and the most difficult clients, they have overwhelming case loads that stretch even the best of them thin.
The adversarial system does not work without public defenders. Gideon’s Army is a documentary film that spends time with three extraordinary public defenders to reveal the challenges faced on an every day basis. The attorneys featured in the film represent the ideal: the smart, dedicated, hard-working lawyers who fight hard for their clients. Attorney Travis Williams tattoos the names of clients that lose trials and go to prison on his back, so that he will always remember them. Brandy Alexander describes how she doesn’t know how she will face the mother of her young client, whom she believes to be innocent of the robbery for which he stands trial. And June Hardwick finally leaves the public defenders office at the end of the time period filmed, as the law pay and educational debt become too taxing for a single mother.
The greatest insight of the film is that not only are real attorneys profiled, but that real cases are profiled as well. We see Hardwick’s initial meeting with one client, and the agonizing decision to plea to prison time for one of Williams’ young clients. The drama of waiting on the jury verdict for Ms. Alexander’s client is intense and very real. It’s too bad the film doesn’t document more cases: it’s one of few films that actually pull back the curtain on real defense work. That’s important to show the other side of crime and punishment. The film is an answer to the question that defense attorneys get constantly from family and friends, “how do you defend those people.”
The film is paced rather slowly: it would benefit by seeing a little more action. Legal drama is the one of the most compelling subjects to show on film, but only one trial is featured. First time director Dawn Porter selected attorneys who were enrolled in the Southern Public Defender Training Center, and spends time at their group training sessions (which double as de facto group counseling sessions for attorneys on the verge of getting burnt out by the system). They attorneys selected are moving, both for their passion and for the obstacles they face in their daily work as public defenders. One might like to see more of Gideon’s Army in action, as long as the run time was not expanded. There was room to include more courtroom action without trying to make the film a docu-drama.
It’s definitely worth a watch, especially for those who wonder how defense attorneys do they work they do. While the film may not fully answer that question, it will certainly impress with the dedication that these under-appreciated public servants bring to their work.
We have discussed Gideon’s Army a few times on this blog. The film premieres tonight on HBO at 9 pm.
FYI: Gideon is the name of the case and the man who sued and won a Supreme Court ruling that defendants are entitled to be represented by an attorney. Gideon v. Wainwright was decided 50 years ago.