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2014 / Gideon’s Army

Gideon's Army

Gideon's Army

Gideon’s Army, directed and produced by Dawn Porter, is the recipient of the 2014 Documentary Film Prize. The film follows three young public defenders in the Deep South — Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick — as they struggle with staggering caseloads, long hours, and low pay, trying to balance their commitment to public service with a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point.

Gideon v. Wainwright is the landmark Supreme Court decision that unanimously ruled that states are required to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants unable to afford to pay their own attorneys.

In reflecting upon its decision, the awards committee said, “We are thrilled to have selected Gideon’s Army which celebrates the legion of idealistic young public defenders who are fighting for equal justice for the disenfranchised within our broken and biased legal system, while struggling to stay one step ahead of poverty themselves.”

Gideon’s Army highlights the work of public defenders while also exposing the subtle and not so subtle ways in which the justice system is complicit in the mismanagement of indigent defense. Rather than taking their chances with a court appointed lawyer — who may have hundreds of other cases — increasing numbers of defendants agree to plea deals or sentences outside of a trial.

“I am honored and so very grateful to receive the Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize,” said director Dawn Porter. “The award will help amplify the critical issues Gideon’s Army exposes, and further share the harrowing stories of America’s overworked public defenders with audiences across the world. Ron Ridenhour was a man committed to truth-telling and correcting injustice. My hope is to advance these same ideals, by using Gideon’s Army to educate audiences, spark civic debate, and ultimately advance constructive solutions to the problems facing America’s criminal justice system. On behalf of the 15,000 public defenders and their clients, and with special thanks to the wonderful lawyers of Gideon’s Promise who are the inspiration and heart of the film, I thank the Ridenhour Award Committee.”

Documentary Film Prize Remarks

Transcript of Documentary Film Prize Remarks

JONATHAN RAPPING:Thank you. So “Gideon’s Army” premiered last year 50 years after the Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, a case that made clear that we cannot have equal justice in this country if poor people don’t have lawyers, the kind of lawyers that you or I would hire for ourselves. And 50 years later, that promise has gone woefully unfulfilled. We have 2.3 million people incarcerated in this country; almost all of them are poor. They are disproportionately people of color, and entire communities are decimated because they don’t have meaningful access to counsel.

Now, I started my career as a public defender here in D.C. which is one of the few really well functioning public defender offices in the country. I wasn’t aware at that time about this crisis, and then I went south and worked in Georgia and Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. And I saw criminal justice systems that just processed human beings, that literally accepted an embarrassingly low standard of justice for poor people. And I met these young inspired public defenders who would go into this work for the right reasons and very quickly have the passion beaten out of them. And soon they would either quit or they would become resigned to the status quo.

And so that led to my wife and I starting Gideon’s Promise, an organization that recruits, mentors, trains and support public defenders in an effort to build a community of change agents to go into courtrooms and broken systems and remind them of our American ideals.

Well, we started in 2007 with 16 lawyers and two offices. We will this summer have roughly 300 public defenders from 15 states. [applause] As we were building this, we realized we needed someone to share this story with the country, with the world. And so we started looking for a filmmaker, a storyteller, and we met Dawn Porter. Dawn was a new filmmaker. We invited her to come down and meet our lawyers. We had no idea at the time how brilliant Dawn is. We had no idea at the time how committed she would become to this cause and we certainly had no idea the impact that her work would have.

Dawn focused on three lawyers who are part of this movement and the result is “Gideon’s Army,” and it has really drawn more attention than any of us ever imagined.

You know, in 1963 when Gideon was decided, as a country we believed in civil rights, we were fighting for it. We believed that people needed to have a fair shot in the criminal justice system and public defenders were heroes. Defense lawyers were heroes, they were portrayed by our biggest stars; films like “Anatomy of a Murder” with Jimmy Stewart as a defense lawyer; Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch, the quintessential public defender. They were heroes. And now 50 years later, we’ve got a criminal justice system that is crueler, that is inhumane, and the right to counsel is disrespected. More often now, you see public defenders portrayed as the stuttering incompetent court-appointed lawyer in “My Cousin Vinny.”

And what Dawn has done with “Gideon’s Promise” is she has reminded us that we can’t have equal justice without public defenders. She’s reminded us that public defenders are heroes. She shined a light on the public defenders who do this work and the people that they represent, which is a critical first step to raising our national consciousness and addressing this issue.

So it’s quite an honor for all of us that her work has received the Ridenhour Award. It’s an award that honors filmmakers, documentarians, that address an issue that has gone unnoticed, that serve an important role in promoting social justice and it’s quite an honor that this group of people recognize that that’s exactly what Dawn’s work does. So before I ask Dawn to come up, I want to just introduce to you a very brief clip from the film “Gideon’s Army.” It gives you a glimpse at the weight that these young lawyers carry on their shoulders, of the import of their work and of the incredible emotional stress that they carry with them every day. They are desperately worthy of this nation’s support, and this award and this film really let them know and thank you from them because they know that there’s a group of people and a voice that believe they deserve that support. So let’s see the film. [applause]

[film clip]

JONATHAN RAPPING: See the film. So, Dawn, on behalf of the hundreds of public defenders of “Gideon’s Promise,” the tens of thousands of people that they represent every year, thank you for exposing this civil and human rights crisis to the world. Dawn Porter. [applause]

Transcript of Dawn Porter’s speech:

DAWN PORTER: Thank you so much. In a year when you’re honoring so many remarkable people, that is truly an honor. Thank you, Jon Rapping. You can see why I made a movie about him. I was in the grocery store when I got a call from Rap and I hear this voice on the other end saying, “Dawn! You got to come to Alabama and see what we’re doing here.” And I was like, “Okay.” I dropped my eggs and went down. But I’m really, deeply honored to receive this year’s Ridenhour Prize for documentary film. Thank you, Randy, Ruth, Tea, Ham, Annelise, Ken, and the entire selection committee.

Over the past year, we premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and were broadcast on HBO Documentary Films. HBO bought “Gideon’s Army” from me, a first time filmmaker, after seeing 20 minutes of footage. And I think that– [applause] I am quite positive that my mother may think something to the contrary, but that’s because of the strength of the stories of these young men and women. I didn’t really know anything about the terrible injustices of our criminal justice system. So when Jon invited me to Birmingham, Alabama, I really leapt at the chance.

When I look at the array of award winners, past and present, “Invisible War” highlighting rape in the military, “Boutros” and this year’s honoree Laura Poitras who is literally one of my biggest documentary heroes. Her bravery and courage inspires all of us. I am so thrilled that “Gideon’s Army” is now not only being recognized in criminal justice circles, but also for what I hope that it would do, which is truth telling.

Common to the awardees, I think, is a desire to tell the truth not only about injustice or wrongdoing, but to tell the truth about things that I think many of us would rather not see. I spent 3 ½ years documenting the lives of these smart, dedicated, funny, compassionate lawyers. Every day, they serve the people in this country, most of us never interact with, most of us never see. Poor people, people addicted to drugs, people who are mentally ill, the question that they’re constantly faced with is how can you do this work? And that’s what I set out to answer during the filming of “Gideon’s Army.” And instead, the question that constantly rises to me is how can we not recognize these lawyers? Eighty percent of people arrested in this country are represented by public defenders, 80 percent. So what does that say? That says that most of the people being arrested for criminal offenses in this country are poor. If 95 percent of those people, 95 to 97 percent if you look to the federal system, are pleading guilty, what does that say about us? That is the system that these public defenders are trying so desperately to interrupt.

When the Supreme Court decided in 1963 that lawyers are an essential necessity to the 6th amendment right to a fair trial, I am so positive that they had Jon Rapping, Brandy, Travis and June, the lawyers that are featured in “Gideon’s Army” and all the lawyers being trained by Gideon’s Promise in mind. I certainly wish that every criminal defendant had the benefit of having their day in court and having an advocate that would fight for them.

So, I thank you so deeply for this honor and I’ll end with a quote from the New York City Police Department. “If you see something, say something.” [applause]