Directed by: Dawn Porter
Written by: Matthew Hamachek & Dawn Porter.
Everyone charged with a crime in America is entitled to a defense – although not everyone can afford a great defense lawyer, everyone is supposed to get a qualified lawyer to represent them – to look out for their interests. As the wonderful documentary Gideon’s Army shows, the public defenders who represent those who cannot afford their own lawyer really do care about their clients. They believe in what they do, and work hard for their clients. The problem is that they often have well over 100 clients at a time – so not all of them get the defense they probably need. For the 90-95% of the people charged, who the movie says will plead guilty to some sort of crime or another, this may not be as big of a deal. They are charged, they are guilty, they know they cannot win, so they look to their lawyer to get them the best deal they can get. But to those other clients – those innocent of what they are charged with – the prospect of having a public defender scares them to death. How much time can a PD really spend on any one case?
The film focuses mostly on two PDs in Georgia – Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander. They know most of their clients are guilty – Alexander tells two shocking stories – one about a man she was working hard to defend, who at the same time was plotting her murder if he was convicted, and another about a man who almost gleefully confesses to raping his stepdaughter. Still, they work long, hard hours trying their best to represent their clients – with little time to mount a defense, and almost no resources in which to do it. The film will eventually concentrate on two cases – one for each lawyer. In the case Williams defends, there is fingerprint evidence found on the scene – but those fingerprints were never tested. Williams doesn’t have the resources to test them himself, so instead he tricks the DA into doing it for him – but even when the fingerprints don’t match, the DA still wants to press on in her prosecution. With Alexander, we see her mount a defense step-by-step, gradually trying to build up reasonable doubt in the jury. The film isn’t an advocacy documentary for these two cases though, as much as it a portrait of the PDs themselves. If it advocates anything, it’s that PDs deserve more credit and respect than they get.
The documentary doesn’t have a narrator, and has an quiet, understated score that only plays some of the time. The movie doesn’t try to ramp up the drama into phony Hollywood-style theatrics, but instead just watches as these dedicated PD’s try their best to mount a defense, even though everything is stacked against them. While the film is about the justice system, it is also about the increasing divide between the haves and have-nots – the haves can afford the best lawyers, working round the clock on their case alone. The have-nots – which there seem to be more have – have to make do with dedicated lawyers, who have little time, and no money to do the same thing. Is it any wonder why most of them simply plead out? You can go broke, lose your job, your house and your kids just by being charged with a crime, even if you are eventually acquitted. The system is stacked against them, and no matter how dedicated these lawyers are, that doesn’t change the basic facts. It’s no wonder most Public Defender’s leave after a few years. No matter what they do, the odds are stacked against them – the work long, hard hours for little pay, and see the justice system they believe in stacked against the weaker people in society. Would you stick around too long for that?