Gideon’s Army (2013) directed by Dawn Porter documents the personal and professional lives of three public defenders working for the criminal court systems in Georgia and Mississippi. Toggling back-and-forth between each of their lives and each their trials, the documentary captures the emotional hardship attendant upon those who unflinchingly and devotedly defense the otherwise defenseless. The documentary follows multiple trials defended each by Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick. In addition to documenting the lives of clients as they prepare for trial – in home, in jail, or in offices – Gideon’s Army captures in intimate detail the struggle of these public defenders as they manage loans, relationships, children, and ultimately the burden of representing clients on trial for life-long prison sentences.
Indeed, much of the focus of the movie regards how these public defenders cope with burden of being a public defender. At one point, Alexander recounts a case in which her client was plotting to kill her if she did not obtain a not guilty verdict. In many ways, the documentary is about how these public defenders maintain despite strong reasons for quitting: low pay, long hours, stress, and dejection. The film attributes professional retention to the Southern Public Defender Training Center, an organization that now goes by the name of Gideon’s Promise, of which provides numerous services including support groups for public defenders to share their struggle and re-imagine their commitment. The name of the organization and the name of the documentary both reference the 1963 supreme court case Gideon v. Wainwright in which it was deemed that stares are required under the 14th amendment to provide council in criminal cases for defendants unable to pay for their own attorneys. The name of the film and the organization work not only to commemorate this case, but also to enjoin public defenders in a heroic community of individuals who defend those highly vulnerable in the justice system.
Throughout the documentary, the structural disincentives of working as a public defender and the painful failings of the justice system are clear. There is no doubt that the strength of public defenders stems from a sense of personal and communal commitment to the defense of the defenseless. In many ways, this documentary offers a form of recognition for those who work irregardless of public recognition.