'Gideon's Army': The Hard Work of Public Defenders

In Dawn Porter's documentary, public defenders are moved by a sense of mission, a belief that their work for justice, in representing their clients, helps to make the US justice system less unfair.

"That's the beauty of this system," public defender Travis Williams tells a jury in Clayton County, Georgia. "It's set up to give people the presumption of innocence, to give them the opportunity to not only be heard, but to hold the state accountable." As Williams completes his impassioned summation for his young, lean, awkwardly suited client during the first moments of Gideon's Army, he underlines that though the state "has the gall to say this is not a big case," in fact, it has "huge consequences," namely, that "This boy will become a convicted felon."

Dawn Porter's documentary, airing on HBO this month, goes on to argue that this understanding of consequences shapes the mission of the 150,000 public defenders who represent millions of clients annually. In the film, Williams and two other defenders reveal that they carry 100 or more cases at a time, and that this load can be exhausting, their salaries low, and their living conditions daunting. Still, they defend people, most all of them poor, some of them likely guilty. Still, Travis affirms, "Every case has a redeeming quality to it, not necessarily every client." Apart from their own commitment to justice, however they think about that concept following law school and then their own case experiences, Travis and fellow defenders June Hardwick and Brandy Alexander find encouragement in their work with the Southern Public Defender Training Center, whose founder Jon Rapping acknowledges how difficult the work can be: "Some of you," he tells a group of young defenders, "are not going to make it."

Filmed repeatedly in tight spaces -- small offices or interview rooms, local courtrooms, their cars -- each of the defenders has a personal story: Travis, who spends long hours at the office or in court, has only recently begun dating ("Obviously, my work habits are not helpful for a relationship"), with whom he agrees to "contracts" concerning their time commitments; June has a young son to support, and Brandy, facing crushing student loans, describes her horror when listening to a client who seemed proud of raping his 12-year-old daughter ("Some people just do evil") and another "charged with murder, who apparently was planning my murder." It's a stunning moment in the film, and yet, it makes visible not only her fear but also her resolve. Though Brandy has thought of leaving the job repeatedly, she says, she also sees her work as part of a larger civil rights history. At the same time, she points out the vagaries of the system, the overdetermined and unfair sentencing, the difficulties posed by lack of resources (no funding to have DNA or fingerprints tests completed), and the fact that, even if she's convinced of a client's innocence, "You just never ever know what a jury is going to do." And still, the members of Gideon's Army persist, convinced that what they're doing is righteous and right.


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This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

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The husband and wife duo DEGA center their latest slick synthpop soundscape around the concept of love in all of its stages.

Kalen and Aslyn Nash are an indie pop super-couple if there ever were such a thing. Before becoming as a musical duo themselves, the husband and wife duo put their best feet forward with other projects that saw them acclaim. Kalen previously provided his chops as a singer-songwriter to the Georgia Americana band, Ponderosa. Meanwhile, Aslyn was signed as a solo artist to Capitol while also providing background vocals for Ke$ha. Now, they're blending all of those individual experiences together in their latest project, DEGA.

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On "Restless Mind", Paul Luc establishes himself as an exceptional 21st century bard who knows his way around evoking complex emotions in song.

The folk-rock swing of Paul Luc's upcoming Bad Seed is representative of the whole human condition. Following his previous track release in "Slow Dancing", the Pittsburgh singer-songwriter is sharing another mid-tempo, soulful number. This time, it describes the way too familiar feelings of uncertainty and diversion can, at times, sneak up on all of us.

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