HBO continues their amazing summer of documenteries with ‘Gideon’s Army’ in July. The new film takes viewers inside our justice system, through the lives of public defenders in the south, showcasing the almost impossible job of defending their clients who rarely know their own rights when arrested.
It was in 1961, when Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for a misdemeanor crime. He was unable to afford an attorney andhe was convicted after representing himself at trial. Gideon then appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the right to counsel in a criminal case is fundamental to the American system of justice.
The film states that “more than 12 million people are arrested in the United States each year,” and after fifty years since the Gideon v. Wainwright case, the United States’ 15,000 public defenders are set defend their clients. The film is Directed by attorney Dawn Porter and was the winner of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival Editing Award for U.S. Documentary Competition.
GIDEON’S ARMY follows a group of young public defenders in the South, where lawyers face particularly difficult challenges due to high bonds, minimum mandatory sentencing and a culture that is traditionally “tough on crime.” The film debuts MONDAY, JULY 1 (9:00-10:45 p.m. ET/PT) exclusively on HBO.
This is but one of the HBO Documentary Films that we have been covering this year, the series is a weekly event throughout the summer. Each week debuting provocative new specials every Monday through August 12. Other July films include: “Gasland Part II” (July 8); “The Crash Reel” (July 15); “The Cheshire Murders” (July 24); and “First Comes Love” (July 29).
In the film you will meet Brandy Alexander, Travis Williams and June Hardwick, who have dedicated themselves to defending those who otherwise would not receive representation, contending 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.
Travis Williams is a Gainesville, Ga. lawyer whose client, Branden Lee Mullin, has been accused of armed robbery and faces a minimum of ten years to a maximum of life in prison. Brandy Alexander has served as a public defender in both Georgia and Florida and is preparing to go to trial on behalf of her client, Demontes Regary Wright, a young man also charged with armed robbery.
The demands on these public defenders can be overwhelming: The average caseload for a public defender in Miami Dade County, Fla. is 500 felonies and 225 misdemeanors. Not surprisingly, 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 the stakes are high – and their clients’ lives will be deeply affected by what they do, or fail to do – they push themselves to the limit over and over again.
The film also stated that in many southern states, “bonds for misdemeanor crimes are exorbitantly high, as much as $40,000 for misdemeanor crimes like shoplifting”, which of course most defendants cannot afford. This leads to a high rate of pretrial detention for indigent clients, with many serving months or even years in prison without a trial. Another factor is the rate of plea bargaining intended simply to end pretrial detention. Notes Brett Willis, a senior public defender featured in the film, “The reality is 90% or 95% 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.”
That’s not all, in addition to lengthy prison sentences, clients found guilty can face severe civil sanctions, which can result in such extreme punishments as: losing eligibility for public benefits, such as federal student loans; losing the ability to live in public housing with one’s 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, public defenders typically face a multitude of trying professional and personal circumstances, for which no amount of training can prepare them. Notes Travis 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 attorneys are backed by mentor Jonathan Rapping, the dynamic leader of the Atlanta-based Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC), 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 over 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. Director Dawn 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.”