I see that the HBO documentary “Gideon’s Army” has won the 2014 Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize.
Named after the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright, which declared that poor defendants charged with serious offenses who cannot afford it are entitled to appointed counsel, “Gideon’s Army” follows three young public defenders, Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick.
Their professional lives involve representing indigent criminal defendants in poverty stricken counties in the Deep South. They are overworked and underpaid, and they are their court appointed clients' last hope for justice in a system that seeks to convict them of serious crimes and sentence them to prison.
As a young lawyer, I was on occasion appointed to represent indigent defendants in serious criminal cases, something I have not done in many years. Those experiences I will never forget.
I found “Gideon’s Army” to be incredibly emotional and engrossing, and its protagonists to be heroic individuals with enormous courage and character. It spoke to me.
This film illustrated many realities:
• While many clients may have grown up under circumstances far different than their court appointed attorneys, and may have not led perfect lives, they are all human beings, with all of the dignity that follows.
• From the outside, many may find people charged with serious crimes, many with a criminal history, detestable. However, when one becomes their advocate, and their last hope to avoid the horrible fate of a long sentence in the penitentiary, it is natural to be compassionate and concerned for their fate, and want to help their case as much as humanly possible.
• Everyone charged with a serious criminal offense needs good counsel. Without that, police power goes unchecked, and the criminal justice system fails.
• Sometimes, a client charged with a serious offense is truly innocent. To be charged with the responsibility of saving someone who may be truly innocent from years of incarceration is an awesome responsibility, and can be incredibly stressful. Winning is euphoric. Losing is devastating.
• Unfortunately, in the business of defending indigent criminals, there are usually more losses than wins.
• Fervent and competent advocacy on both sides of a case is necessary to legitimize the outcome.
• Superb lawyering can make a difference in some cases, but certainly not every case.
• Public defenders love what they do, believe that it is noble and important to advocate the unempowered who are facing the awesome resources that the criminal justice system can bring to bear, and usually are extremely committed to their jobs.
• They often have overwhelming caseloads, work long hours, and are underpaid. But still they soldier on.
Whatever your politics, your view of the legal system, or your thoughts about individual rights in the criminal justice system, “Gideon’s Army” will give you a perspective that will make you think, may change the way you think, and will definitely make you watch to the end.
I highly recommend “Gideon’s Army.” It is a most worthy recipient of this award.
Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org