Film Highlights Public Defenders Fighting Against Creation of Permanent Underclass
An HBO documentary on the right that everyone has to a defense lawyer when they are charged with a crime, even if they cannot afford one, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film “Gideon’s Army,” was featured on “Democracy Now!” this morning.
The film’s release coincides with the fifty-year anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling, Gideon v. Wainwright, which established a person’s right to counsel.
Both the filmmaker, Dawn Porter, and a public defender who appears in the film, Travis Williams, joined host Amy Goodman to discuss the documentary.
Porter, a lawyer, met the head of the Southern Public Defender Training Center, and was struck by the “group of committed, young public defenders” she met “who were trying to kind of change the way public defense is practiced in the United States.” She thought their story needed to be told.
As Porter explains:
…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….
Today, despite the remarkable decision, it has not “been as effectual as its importance.”
Facts and figures in the film show how overwhelming the caseload can be for public defenders. “In Florida, Miami-Dade County, at any one time” the average caseload, as Goodman reads on the program, is 500 felonies, 225 misdemeanors—what, 725 cases.” She appropriately asks, “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?”
Porter answers, “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.” Most cases, as Porter says, do not go to trial.
One clip describes how the system 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…
Porter cites an FBI statistic: “12 to 13 million people get arrested.” She adds, “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.”
Public defenders like Williams are shining examples of how people charged with crimes can benefit greatly if they have advocates. Porter calls Williams a “fighter.” He says he is committed to fighting the system, making sure the police are held accountable and “that the court system is held accountable to make justice work.”
Not only that, he also has a way of marking losses to ensure he remains committed to the cause of justice:
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.
Both Porter and Williams understand the criminal justice system is rife with racism. Porter remarks, “Most people arrested are young minority people, and we are creating a permanent underclass.”
Zealous defenders like Williams and the others who appear in the documentary are necessary to society. They are people, who come from the kind of neighborhoods, where a lot of people being charged with crimes live. They understand those being charged are people first and foremost and “not statistics or numbers,” as Porter says.
America has 2.3 to 2.5 million people incarcerated. Part of the problem is public defenders overwhelmed or not willing to fully advocate for who they represent. Good public defenders willing to work for justice at least makes it possible that less people are pleading guilty to charges that are often completely trumped up so they are reassured they will serve five years instead of ten years in jail. They deserve recognition for the work they are doing every day.