The new documentary "Gideon’s Army" follows a group of young public defenders in the Deep South who contend with low pay, long hours and staggering caseloads to represent the poor. The film’s title comes from the landmark 1963 Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright that established the right to counsel to defendants in criminal cases who are unable to afford their own attorneys. We’re joined by "Gideon’s Army" director and producer Dawn Porter, and Travis Williams, a Georgia public defender who is featured in the film. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. We turn now to a new film that looks at the struggles of public defenders, lawyers who dedicate themselves to representing the poor. In some states, it’s estimated 80 percent of people facing felony charges cannot afford to hire their own lawyers. Often the lawyers appointed to handle their cases are faced with overwhelming caseloads and virtually no resources. The problem is especially bad in the South. The average caseload for a public defender in Miami-Dade County, Florida, at any one time is 500 felonies and 225 misdemeanors.
Well, an HBO documentary premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival follows three public defenders in states like Georgia that fight the odds to provide their clients with quality representation. This is a clip from the film, Gideon’s Army, that explains just what’s at stake.
UNIDENTIFIED: This is the way it really works. You go to jail. You’re charged with an offense, based upon what a police officer thinks you did. They set a bond. And if you’re poor and you can’t make the bond, you don’t get out. So you sit, and you sit, and you sit. You may have lost your house, your kids may be needing sustenance, you may have been taken out of high school—all the things that could happen if you were summarily plucked from your life. You have so much tremendous pressure to plead guilty. It’s all about lessening the penalty.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from the new film’s title, Gideon’s Army, which refers to the landmark Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, which will have its 50th anniversary this March. The case involved Clarence Earl Gideon, a poor man from Florida who was convicted of breaking into a pool hall. He couldn’t afford a lawyer. None was provided for him when he asked for one at trial. In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gideon, finding state courts are required under the Sixth Amendment to provide a lawyer in criminal cases for defendants unable to afford their own.
I want to play an audio recording from the Supreme Court’s oral arguments. This is from the very end of the hearing, when Chief Justice Earl Warren addressed Abe Fortas, the attorney arguing the case, who was himself a future Supreme Court justice.
CHIEF JUSTICE EARL WARREN: Mr. Fortas, before you sit down, I should like to say this. This is a very important case. It’s a very fundamental case. It’s important to—to the state of Florida, the state of Alabama and the other states that have that same rule. It’s important to thousands and thousands of poor litigants throughout—throughout our country.
AMY GOODMAN: That, an excerpt from the oral arguments in the Supreme Court 50 years ago.
We’re joined right now by the filmmakers of Gideon’s Army — well, the filmmaker — Gideon’s Army, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Dawn Porter is with us. And we’re also joined by one of the lawyers that she profiles in this film, Travis Williams, a public defender in Hall County, Georgia.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Dawn, talk about why you made this film.
DAWN PORTER: I am a lawyer, and I had gone to the South to—I met Jonathan Rapping, who is the head of the Southern Public Defender Training Center, and saw the training that was happening in the South for young lawyers. And I was really struck by this group of committed, young public defenders who were trying to kind of change the way public defense is practiced in the United States. And I just thought their story wasn’t known and that people would be interested in seeing what was happening.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the figures are astounding. The U.S. has the largest imprisoned population in the world—what, two million people.
DAWN PORTER: Two-point-three to 2.5.
AMY GOODMAN: Two-point-three to 2.5.
DAWN PORTER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: The oral arguments we just heard, talk about their significance and what this ruling, the right to counsel in a criminal case, has meant.
DAWN PORTER: You know, I think we are—as Americans, we are so familiar with the phrase, "You have the right to an attorney," that we think it’s something that originated with the Constitution. It’s actually only 50 years old. So that Supreme Court ruling was incredibly important. I’m so glad that you played that clip. I’m a lawyer. You know, I remember in constitutional law learning about that case, the Gideon decision. Gideon was an indigent person who wrote from prison a handwritten letter to the Supreme Court and said, "This isn’t fair." And the Supreme Court not only agreed, but they agreed in a unanimous opinion that this is fundamental to the Bill of Rights. And Abe Fortas argued the case, a preeminent Washington, D.C., lawyer, went on to the Supreme Court. It was remarkable jurisprudence. But, you know, what we’re seeing now is that that remarkable decision has not been implemented, has not been as effectual as its importance.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another of the clips in Gideon’s Army. This is Brandy Alexander, a public defender in Georgia, discussing the case of one of her young clients.
BRANDY ALEXANDER: He is a kid. And he’s facing a lot of time. If he’s found guilty, it will break him. Mentally and emotionally, he’ll be broken. I can’t fathom—I cannot fathom turning around to his mother after a jury has said "guilty." And I’ve told her he’s going to get 10 years, at least, at minimum. She says he’s done like a complete 180. He has a job. He’s working on his GED. Apparently he has this girlfriend. So, I think that he’s been scared straight, assuming he gets a "not guilty" verdict and is allowed to live his life. And here’s hoping that that’s the end result. And we don’t see happily-ever-afters very much in this profession, but hopefully we get us a happily-ever-after.
AMY GOODMAN: Dawn Porter, tell us about Brandy Alexander.
DAWN PORTER: Brandy is a remarkable young woman. She grew up in the South in a low-income neighborhood, saw a lot of her friends be arrested, and decided she was going to be a lawyer in order to help them. So she’s a really empathetic person. She almost feels too much. And I think that—I wanted to profile her because I think she breaks the stereotype of the uncaring public defender. Brandy’s issue is she cares too much. And so, if you care so deeply about what happens, it can really, you know, eat you up inside.
AMY GOODMAN: It sounds like there’s someone else who cares a great deal sitting right next to you: Travis Williams. Why did you become a public defender in Georgia?
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: I wanted to—well, it’s—I think it’s different types of people that do this work. And I’m a fighter. And so, I really became a public defender to fight the system, to make sure the police are held accountable, to make sure that the court system is held accountable to make justice work.
AMY GOODMAN: You could make a lot more money as a private attorney. Why aren’t you doing it?
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: I didn’t have a lot of money, so I think I’m doing pretty good now. So I’m happy.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do you work in Georgia?
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: In Hall County, Georgia. It’s about an hour northeast of Atlanta.
AMY GOODMAN: How many cases do you have?
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: Well, I handle mostly level-one felonies—rapes, child molestations, things like that. So my numbers are a little lower than other people’s, but generally about a hundred.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about who comes to you, how you’re assigned to these cases.
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: Well, I’m a senior attorney, so I run a courtroom, and I supervise about three or four different people. And so, a case comes in, and let’s say it’s a murder or a child molestation. It comes directly to me. I work the case up from the beginning. And some of the lower-level felonies go to my junior attorney, and we just kind of work the cases that way.
AMY GOODMAN: You are wearing a sweater—we’re here in Park City, Utah—so people can’t see something that’s very significant about the way you decided to mark your wins and losses. Can you talk about it?
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: Well, my wins, they go on the wall. I frame them, and I put them on the wall, all the verdicts.
AMY GOODMAN: The court decisions, the verdict sheets.
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: Yes, all the verdict sheets. And I’ve gotten five reversals with the court of appeals, so I hang those on the wall, too. But I decided that since the wins go on the wall, as I celebrate them so much, that the losses have to go somewhere. So I have a tattoo on my back that says, "True believer." And underneath that, it says, "Without a belief held true, we cannot possibly hope to persuade." And then underneath that is the names of—the last names of every case that I’ve lost.
AMY GOODMAN: How many names are on your back?
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: Eight.
AMY GOODMAN: So it hurts, even more than the loss, when you get these tattoos, one by one.
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s eight cases out of how many?
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: Out of 24.
AMY GOODMAN: Wow, that’s a pretty good ratio. When was the last time you had one tattooed on your back?
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: Last week. Last week.
AMY GOODMAN: Why are you doing this?
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: I’m doing this because I think that the system needs somebody that’s enthusiastic about keeping it in check, because when I was growing up, I was always harassed by the police, whether it was right or wrong. And so, I want to be able to keep them in check. And the only way to do that is through zealous representation.
AMY GOODMAN: Dawn, why did you focus on Travis, of all the public defenders in the South?
DAWN PORTER: Travis is a—is a unique personality, but I think he’s emblematic of the fighter. There are different models of practicing indigent defense. And Travis is a fighter. And so, he is relentless. He doesn’t give up. Juries appreciate his passion. We had one juror who thanked him, you know, who said, "Innocent until proven guilty, who knew?" But I think what Travis does is he shows what an effective advocate—what a difference an effective advocate can make. And he’s pretty fun to watch, so...
AMY GOODMAN: Travis, can you talk about the case that is focused on in Gideon’s Army that you represent?
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: I represented this young kid. When I first got him, he was 19. His name is Brandon Mullen [phon.]. And he was charged with an armed robbery. And it was a very difficult situation, because he was so young, and it was a case that really involved 96 bucks, but he was facing a potential life sentence. And so, it was—and he grew up without parents. The foster care system failed him. And so, he was just so sympathetic, but the justice system had no sympathy for him.
AMY GOODMAN: The cases that you represent, the one of a young man who won because of his braces.
DAWN PORTER: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe that case, Dawn.
DAWN PORTER: So, Brandy had a client; she calls him "young Mr. Wright." His name is Demontes Wright—and it turns out his mother, a poor woman, had worked really hard to get her kid dental care—and had gotten braces and tattoos. And so, you know, most—most cases do not go to trial. And that’s one thing that’s incredibly important. So, if you don’t—if you have a good lawyer, your case doesn’t go to trial, you don’t get your day in court. In this case, there was really a misidentification by the police. Because we had a good public defender, who insisted on bringing the case to trial, he’s exonerated. And one of the key items was that he had braces, and yet—had braces and was like almost full body tattoos. And the police report makes no mention of that, and the witnesses didn’t remember tattoos, even though they said they—
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about tattoos right up his neck—
DAWN PORTER: Tattoos right up his neck—
AMY GOODMAN: —on his face.
DAWN PORTER: —both sides of his face, all over his arms and hands. And this—they said this kid frequented the pizza parlor, and yet this wasn’t something that they noticed. So, the fact that Brandy was a great lawyer, you know, forced the police to actually make their case, you know, made a big difference.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of what it means to say 90 percent of people charged with a felony actually plead guilty. They don’t go to trial.
DAWN PORTER: They do not go to trial. You know, we have an FBI statistic, is 12 to 13 million people get arrested. So, from those people, many millions will be charged. If 90 percent of those people are pleading guilty, we are funneling people into the prison system. We are not giving them their day in court, which is what the Sixth Amendment—you know, you have the right—
AMY GOODMAN: Why do they plead guilty?
DAWN PORTER: You know, I think, particularly in the South, the sentences are so stiff that it’s very difficult to look at your client and say, "Yeah, I’m going to go to trial." It’s somebody’s life on the line. So, you know, people say, "Oh, two years, three years, not a big deal." You know, I challenge anybody to spend a day in prison. I filmed in prison. It’s an incredibly tense, dispiriting place. So when clients are looking at these long sentences—if you’re looking at 10 years, you’ll take five years, even though that’s a long time. And then you become a felon, with all the collateral consequences to becoming a felon.
AMY GOODMAN: Lawyer turned filmmaker—what did you learn in the process? And what were you most surprised by, Dawn, in making Gideon’s Army?
DAWN PORTER: I was a civil litigator, and I practiced in a wonderful firm. I had a lot of resources. I had an assistant. I had a paralegal. I had supervision. I had time. These young people are coming out—I had training. You know, there were two years before—
AMY GOODMAN: Is your mouth watering, Travis, as you listen to the resources?
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: Yeah, a little bit. Absolutely.
DAWN PORTER: I had a favorite pen. I mean, so, you know, I came out of law school incredibly—and it was two years before had a case on my own. These young people come out—and this was the most surprising thing to me, and I think I was appalled by this, understanding, you know, how little I knew when I came out of law school. They are literally—they graduate, they go to their offices, and they’re handed a file, which is somebody’s life, and said, "Go figure it out." And so, I thought, that is not what good representation is, and that can’t be what we accept.
AMY GOODMAN: The facts and figures in this film—I mean, the average caseload for a public defender in Miami-Dade County—I read this already, I’m going to read it again. In Florida, Miami-Dade County, at any one time, 500 felonies, 225 misdemeanors—what, 725 cases. How is it possible? If you’re working 40 hours—and I know you work more, but 40 hours, this is like three minutes a case. How do people deal? How do lawyers deal with this?
DAWN PORTER: Well, you’ve got a lot of people who plead cases out. You have a lot of people who are forced—they don’t meet their clients, so, you know, they’ll come, they’ll meet them for the first time, and they’ll be representing them.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have a country with 2.5 million people in prison. How do you deal with your own issues, Travis? I mean, your—the pay, your pay, even dealing with student debt—you went to law school.
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: Well, when it comes to the student debt, I’m fortunate enough to have the Georgia Student Finance Commission to pay my student loans now. So—
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
TRAVIS WILLIAMS: Because I—they have this program President Obama was—has funded. And so, I was fortunate enough to apply. And I’ve won a lot of awards in the state, so sent in my CV, because I had been turned down for all these other programs. And they finally accepted me in this program. So it’s been a tremendous blessing for me.
But when it comes to the work, I just—I work nonstop, because it’s too many cases, it’s too much stuff going on, and you just can’t do it in 40 hours.
AMY GOODMAN: Final comment, Dawn, about the state of public defenders, and particularly in the South, especially around the issue of racial prejudice?
DAWN PORTER: Mm-hmm, you know, most prisoners, most people arrested are young minority people, and we are creating a permanent underclass. If you do not have zealous representation, if you do not have people like Travis and Brandy, who come from these neighborhoods, who see their clients as people and not as statistics or numbers, who care about their lives, we’re going to keep funneling and lose a lot of talent.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Travis Williams, a public defender in Georgia, and Dawn Porter, a lawyer turned filmmaker, director of the HBO documentary Gideon’s Army, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and, I hope, coming to a theater near you.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the woman who heads up the documentary track here at Sundance, Cara Mertes. Stay with us.