“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.