Gideon’s Army

WOW!! This movie was amazing. Watch it!! For anyone who has ever wondered how our justice system really works, you must watch this documentary to show the challenges that these courageous public defenders face every single day. My favorite public defender in this documentary was Travis Williams. Travis grew up without a mother or father and was raised by his grandmother, he fights very hard for his clients and sets a high expectation for himself in order to attain acquittal verdicts for them. Travis has accumulated a wall of framed “Not Guilty” verdicts of clients that he has helped maintain their innocence. He states that the clients who received a guilty verdict’s names must be on display as well, he has chosen to display them in a form of a tattoo on his back. I would like to share one case in particular that Travis discusses in length in the documentary. A seventeen year old boy who was accused of armed robbery, in the state of Georgia if found guilty of armed robbery carries a minimum mandatory sentence of ten years in jail. The prosecution stated that the suspect held a knife to a pizza driver’s throat and robbed him for $96. The victim stated that the person committing the crime wore a mask and is unable to identify who robbed him. The defense, Travis, recalled that the driver’s statement that the criminal touched the pizza delivery vehicle on several occasions and prints were recovered by the police. Travis had not received any results because the prosecution never sent the prints to the lab to get tested. Believing his client’s claim to guiltlessness, Travis desperately needed the results of the prints to solidify his client’s innocence but, the public defender’s office does not have the means to test the prints. Travis states that he must “trick” the prosecution; he filed a motion to quash the fingerprint evidence from the case since it had not been tested, essentially forcing the prosecution to test the prints or have the evidence become inadmissible in court, the prosecution chose to test the prints. As Travis expected the results showed that neither his client nor his friend prints matched that of which were found on the vehicle. Travis was ready for trial or so he thought. The prosecution offered a deal to the second suspect for a less severe penalty and it was accepted. Travis’s client signed a plea deal, to robbery by intimidation, this carried a sentence of five years in prison but it would be up to the judge to enforce this time. Travis pleaded to the court to hand down a sentence of two years but his cries were not heard, the judge sentenced the young man to five years in prison, the boy was seventeen years old. On the same week Travis won the public defender of the year award, he stated that the award was bitter sweet due to the sentence of the young man received earlier that week. Travis’s dedication to his job is extraordinary, our judicial system would function more efficiently if more public defenders loved their jobs as much as he did. But with large caseloads, one hundred eighty cases per defender, minimum pay, and stressful days, many public defenders are leaving their positions to seek employment elsewhere.

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6 Responses to Gideon’s Army

  1. gchanneyla says:

    I am upset that I was unable to join the class in watching the documentary, but by the sounds of it it appears to have been really good. It seems that the documentary points to a bigger picture as you mentioned and that is that public defenders are given a stereotype of not caring for their clients or that they not taken seriously. They have to much on there plate at times and are unable to give an adequate amount of time and effort into giving a defendant a fair trial. The cycle of public defenders that are given a boatload of cases in turn hurts the purpose of the judicial system because it robs defendants of a fair trial. Then there are the public defenders that grow overwhelmed and lose interest and passion for their career. Losing that passion and care for what you do is dangerous and in this particular case it creates a bad-name for public defenders. They become known as attorneys who are just trying to stay afloat in a competitive field and who do their jobs poorly.
    This issue about overwhelmed and under-payed public defenders needs to be addressed in order for defendants to be a given a fair trial, and not just be swept under the rug when a public defender advises the defendant to accept a plea deal because that is the best he or she can do for the defendant at the moment.

  2. nicksalute says:

    I absolutely loved the documentary and I’m so glad that we were able to watch it in class. I plan on pursuing law school, so naturally I am very interested in anything law-related. I was aware that public defenders worked exceptionally hard at their jobs, and were often misrepresented, but Gideon’s Army undoubtedly took that understanding to a new level. Having over 180 cases at one time is absolutely ridiculous in my opinion; I couldn’t imagine trying to deal with that much work for such a low pay.
    I also enjoyed the story of Travis Williams. It seems that public defense is his true calling in life, and it was amazing how he was able to use his personal troubles as motivation through his endeavors. He sacrifices a lot to do what he does – he mentioned in the film that his life revolves around his exhausting profession – but as they stated in the documentary: “Someone’s gotta do it.”
    Another particular point of the film that stuck with me was when one of the public defenders, Brandy, was discussing a case that put her life in danger. She had said that one of her clients was bragging to his inmates that he was going to kill her if he wasn’t let off. With tears in her eyes, she confessed how horrible of a feeling it was to spend countless hours trying to help someone, only to have them threaten your life. It is constant trials such as this one that create an inevitable sense of respect for the public defender.

  3. alphaomegawords says:

    The film was a very interesting glimpse into the life of the criminal justice system. As pointed out, I think it does a service to point out that not all of those practicing as public defenders fit the stereotype that has become the moniker that many of us attribute to them. However, one of our classmates did well to point out that while what we were watching had real people involved in real cases, involving real charges, it is very important to remember that it is a film, written, filmed, and directed with an end in mind. It utilized cinematography, selected interviews and clients, music, etc. to tell the story that the director(s) and producer(s) wanted to tell. While documentaries can be insightful and informative, we must remember that they are presenting the information on their terms. While journalists do suffer from biases themselves, they still typically do a better job of presenting information as information. Documentaries, however, are not simply information for information’s sake; they are films designed to convey and, if possible, further a particular interest or view of the world.

    I’m not saying that documentaries should not be made or viewed. On the contrary, I am a strong advocate in documentary filmmaking. However, we must view them with an eye to understanding that they, typically, only present a particular view of the whole and that it would behoove us to engage the topic further. One point made by one in our class that I thought encapsulates this is (and I paraphrase),”What would the film have been like and what details included or excluded if it had followed the prosecuting attorneys on the other side of each case that was traced in the film?” This is just one of many possible ways to think about documentaries critically.

    That being said, I did really appreciate the film for what it was and how it really engaged the mind and the heart to really consider how broken the criminal justice system is in the United State. There is much in our country that needs attention and reform and this is just one of those arenas. It breaks my heart to know that there are people pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit but do not have the financial resources to fund the proper investigation to prove it, even with the extremely difficult standard of ‘reasonable doubt.’ The film also highlights the realities of racial and socioeconomic divide that still exists in America and really challenges us to reconsider many things that most of us take for granted. For those that haven’t watched it, I highly encourage you to and to think deeply about where you fit in the larger storyline of America.

  4. fallenstar66 says:

    I too agree that this documentary was worth watching. It not only showed public defenders in another light then the stereotypical light, but also gave us a glimpse into how the court system works. However, like was mentioned in a previous comment, it only gave us one side of the story. The film only showed certain cases out of the huge case load that these defenders have. Though the defenders did mention certain cases that were hard for them ( I remember one of the ladies mentioned having to defend a man that had raped his 12 year old daughter and enjoyed it). Instead the film showed cases that allowed you to feel not just for the defender, but the client as well. I know that the case you mentioned also bothered me. Partly because of the ending to it, but also because it gave a glimpse into the flaws of the court system. Because his “friend” spoke first and against the boy, this ‘friend’ was able to get a much lighter sentence. Since they both committed the same crime (and no one was ever able to prove as to who pulled the knife on the victim) both should have received the same sentence. It almost felt like punishment instead of justice, because as long as one person received the full sentence of the law, they (being the judge and prosecutor) were happy. I did not find it fair that the boy received that long sentence while the other did not for the same crime. Though I completely command Travis for his hard work and tactics, the ‘system’ was against him. I believe this is partially why it is such a hard job, because even when you do come across those rare cases of good people needing fair justice, the system still tears them down.

  5. mbstanton says:

    I had the bitter-sweet pleasure of watching this film in my other class shortly after your viewing and it easily has grown to be one of the most intense documentaries I have watched this year. I enjoyed it for being a realistic insight into the world of public defenders trying to survive in our justice system, but in the same light, it was extremely heartbreaking. 15,000 defenders are burdened with the impossible task of defending citizens in our country who have been charged with a crime and cannot afford an attorney. When 12 million citizens are arrested each year, this invites a great deal of stress into the difficult lives of public defenders who are responsible for 180 to 200 cases at a time. One element that struck me most in the film was when Williams’ co-worker, Brandy Alexander, spoke about representing innocents and guilty persons. One particular case I had a hard time dealing with was the rapist who detailed his crime with pride having raped his young daughter and was excited to say he would do it again given the opportunity. It is disheartening to me to imagine representing someone who I know was guilty. Additionally, I can see the pain one would experience in having an innocent client be sentenced to jail for a crime he/she did not commit. One of my favorite films of all time is “Twelve Angry Men.” If you haven’t had the privilege of watching this film, I urge you to do so. It challenges the immediate impulse for jurors to declare an individual guilty for a crime. The main protagonist in this film reminds the other men in the case of the critical detail in our constitution that is so often over looked; reasonable doubt. Travis Williams does a wonderful job of outlining how this detail is important in his position as a public defender and that we need to draw more attention to it in court cases.
    Wonderful summary of an interesting and important documentary. Thank you for your submission.

  6. fern1007 says:

    I know I really punctured the emotional response our class had after watching the film. It is a powerful film filled with pathos. I was moved by the stories of the lawyers and some of the defendants. However, anytime I watch a documentary I try to keep in mind that it is more like an op-ed.
    It’s an opinion piece.
    For all of the emotion jam packed into the doc, I wasn’t really ever sure what the main argument was, or what kind of solution the filmmakers and people involved want. Obviously, the filmmaker is showing how hard the life of a public defender, and I doubt that anybody could argue otherwise. Their struggle reminded me of overworked social workers who are loaded down by cases. However, their cases are people. Living breathing humans. It’s hard to imagine how anybody can cope with that amount of stressful responsibly.
    On the other hand, once I felt how strongly the documentary utilized pathos a mental red flag went up.
    This is I think, the real point.
    Emotion is used to pull people into political boxes. Emotion is used to influence how we vote. Perhaps after watching the documentary Blackfish you decide to no longer support Sea World. I say, “okay, go with your conscience.” Yet, maybe it’s good to watch another documentary which portrays the opposite view? Scratch that, it is important to watch a documentary that tell the opposite view.
    The contributor alphaomegawords recap what I said to the class once the movie ended. To be honest, the reason I made that comment is because I too am a deeply emotional person. Emotions are not bad! It is just important for consumers of information to think about more pathos. Interrogate political opinions with logic, especially the political options that push your emotional hot buttons.

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