Director: Dawn Porter
Writer: Matthew Hamacheck and Dawn Porter
by Tory Maddox
Public Defenders were mandated by SCOTUS in 1963 in Gideon v. Wainwright, in which Clarence Gideon was accused of vandalism and petty theft, was refused counsel by the state of Florida since they only did so with capital offenses, then had to defend himself, was sentenced to five years, and then spent the time educating himself and petitioning the supreme court that his sixth amendment right was refused. SCOTUS ruled in his favor and allowed counsel to be appointed during trial or appeal across the states (surprisingly, it would take another three years before public counsel could be allowed in the interrogation room, as provided by the Miranda Rights in Miranda v. Arizona). Nevertheless, filling the quota of public defenders has been difficult, forcing the few lawyers to take more cases than they can handle, leading the accused to continue to suffer against an unfair legal system. These lawyers refer to themselves as Gideon's Army.
Gideon’s Army takes a very disheartening look at these public defenders. It focuses on three individuals who are trying to stay afloat amidst the incredibly difficult and high volume of cases, leading to straining personal relationships, all topped off with incredibly low pay. One man in particular (I can’t seem to find any of the lawyers’ names’ as the IMDb page is close to blank) works such long hours that his girlfriend has now resorted to constant bargaining with him in order to try and cut down on the workload.
It’s very easy to feel the passion these individuals have, knowing that they’re the last resort against those who can’t afford other means. If they don’t care then no one will. While most of the cases are very cut and dry, it’s the few instances where the accused are innocent that drains the most out of those defending them, while simultaneously offering the greatest reward. But unlike their colleagues in the private industry, there is no bonus, there is no big payout, there is just a mountain of other cases, most which are far less hopeful. For just under 200 years since the constitution was established, those who couldn’t afford counsel for non-capital offenses were forced to defend themselves. I can’t imagine how many were accused wrongfully. And so Gideon’s Army continues a proud and incredibly difficult tradition. It’s clear that not many of these lawyers will stick it out. They will take better paying jobs with more security. It’s those who last, committed to defending those that can’t defend themselves, that makes me have an appreciation beyond anything I had before watching this film.
BELOW: Democracy Now! interviews director Dawn Porter
Thoughts on films, old and new
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