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Gideon’s Army

Posted by martinteller on September 19, 2014

This documentary, made for HBO by Dawn Porter, follows three Georgia public defenders: Travis Williams, June Harwick and Brandy Alexander.  Like the excellent Murder on a Sunday Morning, it gives you a real appreciation of the heroic efforts of the public defender.  These people are overworked, handling from 130 to 180 cases at a time.  They’re underpaid, and many of them have crippling student loans to pay off, leaving them a paltry sum every month to buy food.  In one scene, Alexander scrounges in her car for change so she can buy gas to get home.

The movie also points out the flaws in our justice system, just in case you weren’t already outraged about that.  Most of the people arrested in this country can’t afford a lawyer, and they can’t afford bond either.  So they sit in jail for months awaiting trial, while their families fall apart and their houses are taken from them.  Most of them end up pleading guilty because it’s the easiest way to get through the system, regardless of innocence.  Sometimes you plead guilty to a winnable case with the evidence on your side, just because another guy didn’t like the odds so he flips over to the prosecution’s side for a deal.  Now your case isn’t so winnable anymore.  Truth and justice often have little to do with the American Way.

And sometimes the defenders have to work on the behalf of people who they know are guilty, people who have done abominable things.  The movie explores the difficulty of reconciling that, how a public defender needs the ability to put the concept of “winning” on a sliding scale.  It’s a job where morality is hard to define, and combined with the oppressive workload and non-competitive salary, many flee to private practice.  One can hardly blame them.  Instead, you respect them for putting their time in the trenches, trying to fight the good fight.

It’s a sobering film with few triumphs, but when the triumphs come they hit home.  These are interesting and admirable people.  Hug a public defender today.  You never know… it may be your ass they’re saving next.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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