Three years ago, Dawn Porter decided it was time for a change. So, after five years as a litigation associate in Baker & Hostetler’s Washington, D.C., office and another 12 at in-house jobs with ABC and A&E, she set her sights on making documentary movies.
An amateur photographer whose experience at media companies was limited mostly to advising producers on legal and ethical issues, Porter had no idea how to shoot or edit film at the time. Nonetheless, she felt her career as an attorney had equipped her with the kind of storytelling skills essential to being a successful documentarian.
“I think legal training is very rigorous: You do your research, you need to write well, and you work hard,” says the 46-year-old Georgetown University Law Center graduate. “If you have those fundamentals, the rest of it you can learn as you go.”
Porter proved to be a quick study—and her decision not to stray far in choosing the subject of her maiden documentary was probably a wise move. That film, Gideon’s Army, won top editing honors in the U.S. documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival when it debuted there last month. It is scheduled to be shown at the Miami International Film Festival next month and to air on HBO over the summer. The timing couldn’t be better.
The 96-minute film follows a handful of public defenders enrolled in a unique training program designed to both hone their courtroom skills and boost their confidence. The Gideon of the title, of course, refers to Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court case that established that even those who can’t pay for a lawyer have the right to one. With the landmark ruling’s 50th anniversary approaching in March, Gideon’s Army captures the sorry state of indigent defense in the U.S. a half-century after the Court left it to individual states to devise their own ways of ensuring that right.
It’s not news that the nation’s 15,000 full-time public defenders are overworked and underpaid. Recent studies have found that while the American Bar Association recommends that lawyers for the poor take on a maximum of 150 felony cases a year [PDF], many of those doing the job often juggle more than double that number. In Florida, one of the states Porter examines in her film, public defenders handle an average of 500 felony cases a year. Not surprisingly, the exploding caseloads undermine the quality of the work public defenders perform for their clients. A 2012 report produced by New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice found, for example, that such lawyers spend an average of just six minutes on an arraignment.
Despite her prior career, Porter was unfamiliar with this grim corner of the legal profession when she set out to make Gideon’s Army. "It’s really horrific and very shocking to me," she says. "I made the film for people like me, who don’t understand how it is possible that somebody innocent but poor could be in prison." (Click here to see an interview with Porter conducted in connection with the film’s Sundance debut.)
Porter got the idea for the documentary after the Ford Foundation rejected her application for a grant to fund a different film. A program officer in the foundation’s criminal justice division suggested she contact Ford grantee Jonathan Rapping, the founder and CEO of a Birmingham-based nonprofit now known as Gideon’s Promise, with an eye toward documenting the initiative. After traveling to Alabama to watch Rapping’s boot camp–style program in action, Porter decided it could serve as the basis of a story she felt compelled to tell.
Rapping, who spent nine years as a public defender in Washington, D.C., developed Gideon’s Promise—originally dubbed the Southern Public Defenders Training Center—with his wife, Ilham Askia, out of the couple’s Atlanta living room in 2006. By then, he had helped launch Georgia’s first statewide public defenders system and helped rebuild the indigent defense program in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Though public defenders across the country share a similar plight, Rapping says the problems he encountered in the South were particularly acute. "There was this culture that existed in much of the South that created very low expectations," he says. "I was shocked by the low expectations that many defenders had for themselves." Ultimately, he decided he could do more to raise those expectations by training public defenders outside a government setting.
The result, as Porter’s film shows, is a program that begins each January with a new group of up to 50 lawyers—most of them just starting their public service careers in states throughout the South—descending on the Birmingham headquarters of Gideon’s Promise. Once there, participants dive into an intensive, 14-day training program built around tutorials in such courtroom fundamentals as cross-examining witnesses and constructing opening statements and closing arguments. Aside from sharing practical advice, Rapping and roughly 60 instructors—all of whom are either current or former public defenders—also aim to revive the confidence of attorneys prone to questioning whether society values what they do. Following the initial training, the group reconvenes every six months over the ensuing three years to brush up on their skills and strengthen their bonds. The cost of the program is split between Gideon’s Promise and each participant’s employer.
“There are many young and idealistic lawyers coming out of law schools who want to do a good job but they enter a system that doesn’t offer this,” Rapping says. “And the people that grow in this system adopt that mentality.” For that reason, he adds, Gideon’s Promise generally accepts only those with relatively little experience. "We recruit a class of young public defenders or lawyers that have been practicing for less than three years, so they haven’t developed bad habits that are hard to get rid of.”
June Hardwick, one of the lawyers featured in Gideon’s Army, is typical. A community activist since the late 1980s, Hardwick saw indigent defense as a natural extension of her long-standing commitment to help the less fortunate. In 2007, she took a job as a public defender in Jackson, Mississippi. Before long, though, the work became daunting. It didn’t help that she was having trouble chipping away at her mountain of law school debt on an annual salary of about $53,000.
Hardwick enrolled in Gideon’s Promise in 2009 and completed the program last year. It was, she says, “the most intensive training I’ve ever participated in” and an experience that, simply put, “made me a better attorney." Almost important as the skill-building lessons was the time spent after class with other public defenders facing the same systemic challenges and feeling the same frustrations. "We’d all hang out after hours, until late at night, all talking and getting to know each other," says the 37-year-old single mother. “These friendships were perfect for when we needed a boost.”
Of course, as Hardwick would acknowledge, such a boost can be fleeting. Midway through her training—and while Porter was still putting Gideon’s Army together—she decided for various reasons, some of them financial, to start her own practice, take on private clients, and cut back her indigent defense to part time. For this particular foot soldier, it wasn’t a total surrender, but a sign of the toll the battle can take.