When assistant public defender Travis Williams promised the camera that he would tattoo the name of every client who lost at jury trial on his back, my first thought was, “He’s going to run out of room.”
This concern had nothing to do with Mr. Williams’ skill or dedication as an advocate for his clients–quite the contrary–but the electric idealism that sustains new public defenders is precious and all-too-temporary. I imagine that bearing each and every trial loss on his body will weigh like a lead weight around his psyche, and the weight can quickly snuff that spark. If Mr. Williams’ trial calendar continues to follow the pace of the murderous meat grinder in which he appears to practice, he may find himself with several dozen names to arrange within his first five years.
Travis is one of three subjects featured in Dawn Porter’s excellent documentary, “Gideon’s Army” which is playing on HBO. Gideon’s Army focuses primarily upon the lives of three public defenders in the American South: Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick. The film also features Jonathan Rapping and the folks at Gideon’s Promise (known formerly as the Southern Public Defender Training Center), who appear to serve as equal parts mentors, senseis, and therapists to the young public defenders in the South who participate in their program.
Travis is our introduction to the world of public defenders, but the film’s climax comes when Brandy Alexander wins a “not guilty” verdict for her client, Demontes Wright, who faced a life sentence because two brothers accused him of taking a small amount of cash from their pizza parlor’s register. Brandy’s story cleanly captures the unique agony of being a public defender with an innocent client; Brandy knows full well that her innocent client could go down at trial. In Georgia, a guilty verdict for this charge meant a life sentence. Mr. Wright had recently resumed his education and looked to be on the verge of getting his adult life started on the right foot until being charged with this offense. His very life was at the mercy of a store clerk who identified Mr. Wright as the robber but admitted on cross-examination that he never really looked at the robber’s face. The state’s case hung entirely on the word of this witness, and across the country, such flimsy evidence is used every day to convict people of crimes. Ms. Alexander literally saved this man’s life; it makes for a stirring ending.
I see why Ms. Porter didn’t want to make Gideon’s Army too depressing, but the happy ending gives the viewer an artificial sense of a young public defender’s efficacy: that is, that the systemic inequities of our justice system can be overcome by idealism alone. Idealism is so featured in the documentary, it is almost a character in itself. Idealism is the true hero of the story.
This touches on a widespread phenomena of the State outsourcing its responsibility to see to it that society functions by relying on idealists or other “faith-based” institutions. This excuses and exonerates the powerful Alphas from their hedonistic money-grabbing because the empathic, bleeding-heart Betas will keep things from slipping too far into decay. And when charity proves insufficient, there is money to be made; for-profit prisons flourish where faith fails. The problem is that this effectively privatizes social services so they are available firstly to those who agree to the agenda of the organization caring for them. Do we really want to distribute justice in the same way we parcel out canned food, clean needles and sleeping cots?
Gideon’s Army is noticeably silent on those inequities in our justice system that cannot be overcome solely through plucky idealism. The system needs public defenders to keep it honest because without them, the system would cheat. This notion is unthinkable to most people, and I had hoped that Gideon’s Army would open a crucial opportunity to begin the process of re-educating those who take justice for granted. I would have loved to have seen Travis cross-examine one of those bent narco cops who insist under oath that his client “consented” to being searched, thereby making the search legal. Prosecutorial misconduct is a leading cause of convictions being reversed on appeal, and despite this, it remains one of the least investigated variety of ethics violation by state bar associations nationwide.
Again, I can see why Ms. Porter focused on the nobility of her subjects and not on the misdeeds of their opponents, but I hope the viewer doesn’t get the false impression that prosecutors and police are free of wrongdoing. Arresting and searching someone without probable cause is just as illegal as robbing a pizza parlor, but cops and DAs are on the side of power; their law-breaking is not only ignored, but most people actively disbelieve its existence. Sanctimonious DAs who overcharge clients simply because they’ve mistaken the rods up their asses for the needle of a moral compass are ruining a life, a family, and a community to a much greater extent than swiping money out of a cash register does.
Public defenders are the only ones holding the line between “well-intended” overzealous prosecution and a police state. Ms. Porter exposes the uncomfortable truth of how thin that line is and how, in some communities, it has effectively already been crossed. For many minority and low-income clients, justice exists only for those that can afford it. Do we really want to live in an America where innocence is for sale?
I understand that my opinion of Gideon’s Army may differ from a layperson’s. As the film itself points out, a mere 15,000 public defenders exist nationwide to represent millions of indigent accused. We are clearly too small a market to be this film’s primary target, not to mention that many of us don’t have a premium cable subscription. At minimum, my hope is that a layperson watching this movie would think to themselves afterward, “That is noble, worthwhile work that these people are doing; maybe we owe it to them to make the job just a little less miserable.”
Without public defenders, justice doesn’t happen. And public defenders deserve the resources necessary to carry out their work. I do not wish to criticize the lawyers featured in Gideon’s Army, but my impression is that the job function they carry out seems more like social work than actual criminal defense. Giving a client a thorough explanation of what is happening so he knows exactly where he is in the process of being screwed is certainly part of the PDs job function, but there’s more to it than that. As a public defender, I am part of a team of lawyers, paralegals, investigators, lab technicians and other experts who work together for the defense. If a PD office can’t afford to test for finger prints that might exonerate a client, then how can it give truly effective assistance of counsel? And I think the harsh truth of the matter is that it cannot. If clients are pleading guilty just to avoid the possibility of a life-sentence, then the “system” is not working.
I find myself wondering whether the film’s triumphant ending avoided confronting the viewer with the hardest, most bitter truth about our criminal justice system: innocent people can and do go to jail, sometimes for forever. I held my breath during Mr. Wright’s verdict and I felt genuine relief as the “not guilty” was read. I would never, ever wish for any other result for him. But part of me wonders what kind of impact the film would have had if it forced the viewer to watch as an innocent person – with evidence on his side – goes down anyway. Although many people understand, intellectually, that innocent people can and do get convicted, almost nobody knows what it looks and feels like as you watch it happen. Most people believe that those in prison deserve to be there. I can tell you that many of them do not.
At least one Supreme Court justice denies that any innocent person has ever been wrongly convicted and executed in the past century. With this in mind, the lesson that Gideon’s Army teaches us is more urgent than ever.