This Sundance Award winner profiles three dedicated but overworked public defenders in the southern states who fight to keep their clients out of jail in a system that’s stacked against them.
Gideon’s Army follows Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick, who are part of a small group of idealistic lawyers in the Deep South dedicated to defending those who otherwise would not receive representation. Backed by mentor Jonathan “Rap” Rapping, a charismatic leader who heads the Southern Public Defender Training Center, these public defenders struggle against long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads so common that even the most committed often give up in their first year.
Travis Williams is a Gainesville, Georgia lawyer whose client, 20-year-old 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. June Hardwick, a Jackson, Mississippi attorney and single mother, struggles with keeping her job as a public defender while managing her 6‐figure student loan debt.
Lawyers in the Deep South face particularly difficult challenges. In many southern states, bonds for misdemeanor crimes are exorbitantly high, as much as $40,000 for misdemeanor crimes like shoplifting, which 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. 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.
"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,” says Travis Williams. “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.”
In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for stealing soda and a few dollars from a pool hall. Unable to afford an attorney, he was convicted after representing himself at trial. Gideon appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright case, which ruled unanimously that the right to counsel in a criminal case is fundamental to the American system of justice. More than 12 million people are arrested in the United States each year. Most of them will be represented by one of the United States' 15,000 public defenders.
GIDEON'S ARMY is directed and produced by Dawn Porter of Trilogy Films Production in association with Motto Pictures with funding provided by the Ford Foundation & HBO Documentary Films.
FORD FOUNDATION and HBO DOCUMENTARY FILMS present
A TRILOGY FILMS Production in association with MOTTO
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The Honorable Paul Fishman
The Honorable Judge C. Andrew Fuller
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The SPDTC Class of 2009
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The Gainesville Public Defender’s Office
The Clayton County Public Defender’s Office
The Hinds County Public Defender’s Office
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