Among the revelations you're likely to experience during the course of Gideon's Army, Dawn Porter's vital, moving new HBO documentary (premiering July 1) about the struggle of conscience waged by public defenders in the deep South: "Everyone is so young." Not just the suspects—mostly black and mostly broke—whom we see ground through the criminal justice system in places like Clayton County, Georgia, where posting bond on a shoplifting charge can run an unconscionable $40,000.
It's the defenders themselves whose youth is so touching. In their mid-to-late 20s, facing impossible caseloads, inhumane hours, and an intractable system, as well as their own mounting student loans and the certainty that their law school peers are by comparison drawing serious bank, these tough-willed attorneys seem fueled entirely by a youthful zest for justice, by the certainty that it is our mandate in this country to help those who need the most help—even in those horrible cases where the defenders know their itinerant clients are guilty.
"Some people are just bad people. Some people just do evil things," says Georgia public defender Brandy Alexander, each word like something she's scraping out of herself. (This comes just after she has told the story of a client who was burning to tell her how he raped his daughter.) "I don't feel like I should think those things about my clients. I feel like I'm doing them an injustice because I speak those things about"—her voice breaks a little—"a lot of them."
Alexander makes that admission at the one place she can: the Southern Public Defender Training Centerpiece, a seminar attended by other defenders, again mostly young folks. One is working 165 different felony cases; another mentions "six figures of educational debt."
"Every case has a redeeming quality to it," insists Travis Williams, another Georgia defender, in response to Alexander. Then he offers up words he must have said and thought many times before. "Not every person, necessarily. It will make you feel good to do right for people when they're right, but, shit, I want to do good for people when they're wrong, too."
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As presented by Porter, these defenders' efforts to do right even for people who have done wrong make for the most illuminating crime drama since The Wire went dead. For all the harrowing truth here, about race and poverty and justice, the film is brisk and tight, alive with everyday detail and flashes of humor. There are many revelations, chief among them the sad fact that this film shows us more high-achieving African-American professionals than the probably the entire past season of television combined.
There's even some triumphs, usually the result of inspired lawyering in cases where the defenders expect their clients aren’t evil—or even guilty. In one dramatic flourish, Williams files a motion to throw out fingerprint evidence in a case, knowing not just that the motion will be overturned, but also that the prosecutor will then test a key set of prints Willams can't afford to have tested himself—and which he believes will help exonerate an innocent defendant. Alexander, meanwhile, guides the case of a 17-year-old she believes is innocent all the way to a jury trial, a relative rarity in a system in which the great majority of defendants cop a guilty plea. We see her speaking tenderly to the kid and his family, equal parts commiserating guide and authority figure. "It's hard to understand a life sentence at 17," she says. A moment later, she's chiding the kid as though he's family: "When you're 25, who's going to hire you with tats on your neck?"
That bit of hope—that a kid facing life without parole might have to worry about jobs one day after all—is a stirring moment for these real people and for us watching. It's matched, late in the film, by Alexander's closing argument in a drab courtroom, where it turns out those tattoos she doesn't care for could be the key bit of evidence that could save him from prison. Porter's film is dramatic, unsettling, despairing and, in the end, thrilling—at some point, it grows from a portrait of this country's problems into a celebration of a possible solution. Somewhere out there, the best of us are fighting.