‘Gideon’s Army’: The Best Criminal Attorneys No Money Can Buy

Filmmaker Dawn Porter talks about her profile of Deep South public defenders and why optimism is the best antidote to a broken system.

Graffiti from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans

Graffiti from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans offers a succinct appraisal of America’s prison system. (Photo: Dawn Porter/Gideon’s Army)

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The new documentary Gideon’s Army premiered Monday at the Sundance Film Festival—an apt debut date considering the simultaneous celebrations of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy and President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

The film follows three young, idealistic public defenders in the Deep South struggling against long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads, and illustrates just how tough it is—still—to be poor and get caught up in America’s court system.

The movie, backed by grants from the Ford Foundation, the Sundance Institute, Candescent Films and Tribeca Films, is screening several times during Sundance and will air on HBO this summer.

First-time director Dawn Porter, a lawyer and producer of several highly noted docs, worked with HBO to present and preserve the story of court-appointed lawyers working to provide “justice for all.” She sat with TakePart to discuss the difficulties and challenges of making Gideon’s Army, and the much greater difficulties and challenges faced by anyone on the wrong side of the U.S. criminal justice system.

MORE: Public Defenders on the Ropes: No Cash, No Conviction

TakePart: How did Gideon’s Army originate?

Dawn Porter: I met Jon “Rap” Rapping, the head of the Southern Public Defender Training Center, in Birmingham, Alabama, and he invited me to film his two-week training program for new public defenders. I was overwhelmed by what I saw. All these committed young people dedicated to helping poor people who were up against the criminal justice system. I ended up shooting for three years. I knew they were great characters, but I never imagined it would premiere at Sundance. Never!

How did you choose the three young lawyers—Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick—that you ultimately followed?

That was one of the hardest decisions. These are trial lawyers, and they are great on-camera. One important consideration was where we would be able to film in court. I loved two young women from Louisiana, but we could not get access to the courtrooms they were working in. Brandy agreed to be followed right away, as did June. Travis made me chase him for a year.

Can you speak to the relevance of screening Gideons Army on Martin Luther Kings birthday?  What does that mean to you?

Dr. King’s message of tolerance, forgiveness and standing up for your principles in the face of great odds embodies the work of public defenders. And that the film is premiering on the day that we celebrate the second inauguration of our first African-American president is incredibly special too.

In a promo interview with Sundance you say you are an optimist. Given what youve seen in those Southern courtrooms, where does that optimism come from?

If we can continue to recruit lawyers who won’t stop fighting to correct the severe injustices that are occurring, I think we can create a new generation of lawyers who will not tolerate this broken system.

Does the film suggest any fixes to this broken system? 

We need to provide more training and mentorship to lawyers entering the profession. No lawyer should be expected to walk into court and take someone’s life in their hands without adequate training!

We should also reform the student loan repayment laws. Most of these young lawyers have more than $100,000 in educational debt. They should not have to choose between paying their bills and eating. We also need to address the overcriminalization of minor crimes in this country. Far too many people are in prison for possession of narcotics, which is wrong.

The three strikes laws are filling our prisons, but not keeping us safe.

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