Last line of defense: Film ‘Gideon’s Army’ praises public defenders

Published: Friday, Jan. 25 2013 2:50 p.m. MST

Dawn Porter is the director of “Gideon’s Army,” a documentary about public defenders — attorneys who represent criminal defendants too poor to hire their own lawyers.

The film’s title is a reference to the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which essentially created the job of public defender by requiring state and federal governments to provide competent legal representation for indigent people facing criminal charges. There are about 15,000 public defenders in the United States, and this year they will take on more than 5 million cases.

“Gideon’s Army” premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and will air on HBO this summer. The same week the documentary debuted, the New York Times website posted “True Believers in Justice,” a six-minute video Porter created with exclusive footage of two of the principal attorneys from “Gideon’s Army.”

Porter — who used to work as an attorney for ABC Television Networks — recently sat down with the Deseret News in Park City to discuss “Gideon’s Army,” as well as social issues relevant to the work of public defenders, such as mandatory minimum sentencing and generational poverty.

Deseret News: In terms of public defenders like the ones you follow in “Gideon’s Army,” what is the most important thing you think people should know?

Dawn Porter: I want them to know what great lawyers these young people are. There are public defenders that are fabulous. If I went to jail, I would want Travis Williams (a public defender in Georgia) defending me. I would trust my life with Travis; I would trust my child’s life with Travis.

There is a hierarchy and snobbishness in the law that I think is destructive. A Wall Street job or a firm job is the sought-after prize, and yet these young (public defenders) are great. But they’re not getting any attention because they’re not at these prestigious schools and they’re not doing these jobs that are soul-sucking. People assume we reserve our best talent for high-paying clients, and it’s not true at all.

Another thing is just how deeply emotional and committed they are to their work. Most people assume public defenders hold their noses and defend their clients, (but) public defenders embrace their clients, and it breaks them apart when their clients go to prison.

DN: What are some practical changes you think would improve the criminal justice system?

DP: I think minimum mandatory sentencing is absurd and inhumane. I think the point of a judicial system is to bring justice and wisdom, and I think having a one-size-fits-all sentence is just crazy. In Louisiana if you have a drug conviction that’s a first felony, (the) second drug conviction is mandatory five years in prison — doesn’t matter how much drugs you have — (and the) third drug conviction is mandatory life in prison. Mandatory life — how does that keep anybody safe? All it’s doing is filling up prisons with people, breaking up families and creating a cycle of poverty.

I am not a person who thinks nobody should go to prison — I do think people should be punished, but I think it should be done deliberately and knowingly and fairly. I think minimum mandatories are a big problem and we should look at them and say, “Is that what we really meant to happen?”

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