Gideon's Army

Gideon's Army debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Deeply troubling and necessarily heartbreaking, Dawn Porter’s remarkable documentary Gideon’s Army provides disheartening insight into the American criminal justice system through an examination of the backbreaking, emotionally devastating daily grind of two remarkable young public defenders. Following their efforts on behalf of two defendants, the film posits that, in order to be effective advocates for their overwhelmingly impoverished clients, public defenders must possess levels of selflessness, idealism, and endurance in vast disproportion to the rewards they can expect to receive, either financially or in societal respect. And that, for the arrested poor, the system, even with the most committed PD by your side, is almost irretrievably rigged against you.

Named for Clarence Earl Gideon (Henry Fonda played him in a movie once), an indigent thief who fought all the way to the Supreme Court for everyone’s right to an attorney, Gideon’s Army portrays that right as, for most defendants, being almost irrelevant in the current legal climate, especially in the Southern states where the film’s protagonists practice. If the film has a villain, it’s the adoption of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes which, as one PD explains, results in “90 to 95 per cent of all defendants pleading guilty...to something” in order to avoid a guaranteed decade or more in prison. So, in a state with mandatory minimum sentences, a young defendant is often faced with a wrenching gamble: Plead guilty and receive a mandatory ten year sentence without the possibility of parole or go to trial where, if convicted, he’ll go to prison forever. There’s a third outcome, of course—freedom—but that, as Gideon’s Army reveals with terrifying clarity, is a possibility beset with so many systemic obstacles as to, at times, seem nearly impossible. As that defender puts it resignedly, “Because the system is designed to force them to plead guilty and it punishes their failure to comply, it’s all about lessening the penalty. That’s what we do.”

Enter Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander, thirty-ish African-American public defenders attempting to navigate this inherently unfair playing field and somehow rise above their staggering workload (the average PD represents 150 clients at one time) and the lowered expectations inherent in it. Over the course of the film, Porter uses one case each to illustrate how Williams and Alexander deal with the various daunting obstacles inherent in the public defender’s job. And while it’s clear that the two young men on trial have drawn the lucky card with regards to their representation, the film makes it equally clear that, even with two extraordinarily committed lawyers at their side, their fates eventually come down to a frightening degree of luck.

Williams lives in a sparse apartment next to his office, frames the acquittal notices of his clients on his wall and has the names of those convicted tattooed on his back. Alexander scrounges up gas money from the change in her car door and gives a disheartening tour through the mountainous files of her current cases. Through the course of the film, each speaks feelingly about why they remain committed to their thankless jobs, even in the face of six-figure educational debts (which could be alleviated by a more lucrative position), and constant questioning of the worthiness of their clients (Alexander tearfully relates how a client had concocted a plot to have her murdered if she lost, even as she was working incessantly for his acquittal). We watch as these pressures threaten their ability to soldier on, their intellectual defenses of what they do (Williams asserts, “Either this is your cause or it ain’t...If you’re gonna take my freedom, you’ve got to do it right”) continually running up against spirit-crushing reality.

In one of the film’s many wrenchingly illuminating scenes, Alexander explains to the mother of a defendant that, if she can come up with $3000 (which is far beyond her reach) to get her son into a pre-trial diversion program, he will avoid prison entirely. Watching her is to watch the collision of idealism and the bureaucratic grind in heartbreaking minuteness as, listening to the mother’s unheard side of the phone call, she controls her breathing and tries to keep her eyes focused on the facts at hand. Alexander has heard all this before, and her professionalism in the face of the all too familiar scenario is admirable. As long as it lasts. (Her client, not able to afford bail, pled guilty to a lesser charge and went to prison.)

Running parallel to the suspense of the two criminal cases, it’s the ongoing toll of this life on Alexander and Williams that provides much of the film’s drama. If they invest as much of themselves in all of their cases as they do in these two (and there’s every sense that they do), then it seems inevitable that they won’t last long. (Alexander confides that her hair has been falling out, and that she recently collapsed in court.) A third PD is revealed partway through the film to have left the job due to financial concerns for herself and her young son, and Alexander, responding to another lawyer’s pep talk, sadly judges, “You don’t want someone like me around in ten years.”

Gideon’s Army shows admirable balance in its treatment of the accused, both of whom are facing charges of armed robbery. Neither defendant is a dream client: They’re both troubled, inarticulate young men who’ve run with bad crowds, and their innocence is hardly certain. Alexander states, “I want to be able to tell the story about the defendant who was saved and that the police tricked him—most of them are not that.” Williams adds, “Every case has a redeeming quality. Not every person. Don’t necessarily focus on the folks sometimes.”

And yet, after witnessing their battle, and that of their public defenders, against a legal system whose pernicious bureaucracy operates seemingly at the expense of actual truth (even when a person’s very life is at stake), when one of the defendants is found not guilty, it’s hard not to share the relieved tears of his family. And to share the hope of his attorney that, witnessing how close he came to being destroyed by a legal system where the young and moneyless are shockingly vulnerable, he’ll never, ever want to be anywhere near it again.

Stray observations:

  • When Williams receives an award as “Assistant Public Defender Of The Year,” the very chintziness of the event underscores the nature of the job: A conference room, a few beers, and twenty or so exhausted-looking lawyers raising a glass before getting back to work.
  • Brandy goes skydiving for her 30th birthday. The long sequence of her in the air focuses on her face as she plummets earthward—there’s no trace of fear, but rather a sense of long-simmering catharsis, the accumulated pressures being released in the scream of the wind.
  • According to the film, some twelve million people are arrested in America every year, represented by only 15,000 public defenders. You know—unless you’re rich.
  • Another estimable quality of the film is how no one is a villain (even the prosecutors and judges are presented as thoughtful and fair), and yet there is no sense that what is being produced by the system they’re a part of in any way resembles justice.
  • As if they didn’t have enough on their plates, both Williams and Alexander must deal with the way cases like theirs are given short shrift by law enforcement. Williams must trick the DA into running fingerprint analysis (which may benefit his client), because the police don’t consider it a priority(?!). Alexander has to do a frightening amount of gambling in court because, according to Georgia law, she’s not entitled to witness depositions(?!).

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