After almost two decades as a corporate lawyer, Dawn Porter took a career U-turn and made a documentary about public defenders in the South. The film, Gideon's Army, will air on HBO on July 1.

"Doing this changed my life. It's been my honor to follow these young people around and my honor to show you their work," Porter told a packed house June 11 at the Carter Center for the film's Atlanta premiere.

Three years in the making, Gideon's Army tells the stories of two Georgia public defenders, Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander, and Mississippi lawyer June Hardwick as they fight for their clients while juggling enormous caseloads and big student loan payments on low salaries.

Gideon's Army provoked crying, laughter and spontaneous applause during the Atlanta screening. Porter and her crew took about 550 hours of footage and compressed it into a tight 96-minute film as gripping and suspenseful as any of the fictional dramas, like The Wire, that HBO has aired.

In the film Williams and Alexander work doggedly to help two clients, both teenage boys charged with armed robbery, fight prosecution in a system where high bonds, steep mandatory sentences and limited resources wear down even the most dedicated public defenders.

Williams' client is accused of robbing a pizza delivery man at knife point, and Alexander's is accused of robbing a neighborhood pizza parlor with a gun. The stakes are high. An armed robbery charge carries a 10-year mandatory minimum with a maximum of life in Georgia.

HBO bought Gideon's Army after seeing just 20 minutes of footage, Porter said. The film went on to win the Sundance Film Festival's Editing Award in January.

Williams, Alexander and their mentor, Jon Rapping, were on hand for the Atlanta premiere. Rapping is the founder of Gideon's Promise, an Atlanta-based training and support network for public defenders which connected Porter with the young lawyers. The organization takes its name from the 1963 Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, which says the state must provide lawyers for criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire their own.

The judges who appear in the film, Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal in Gainesville, where Williams works, and Clayton County Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons in Jonesboro, where Alexander used to work, also attended, along with former clients and their families.

'BLOWN AWAY' BY PDS

Making Gideon's Army, Porter said, opened her eyes to the realities of the American criminal justice system, and she hopes it does the same for others.

She was shocked to find out that innocent people will take a plea deal, either because they can't afford the bond and want to get out of jail or because they are facing a stiff mandatory minimum sentence and don't want to take their chances with a jury.

"I did not believe that innocent people would plead guilty to a crime. It happens all the time. I couldn't wrap my mind around that until I saw it," Porter said during a discussion after the film. "I saw people in Clayton County sitting in jail for 10 months waiting for a trial date. And they just sit. So after a while, they plead guilty. They would not be in jail if they could afford the bond."

"I was outraged that this is happening and that people have such a blasé attitude about it."

Porter, who started her career as a civil litigator at Baker & Hostetler in Washington, said she knew nothing about public defenders or the criminal justice system when she embarked on the project.

After law school at Georgetown University, Porter spent five years at Baker & Hostetler, then went in-house for ABC News, where she was director of news standards and practices. She worked on several news projects in her five years there, reading scripts and working with producers. She then became vice president for standards and practices at A&E Networks.

"I was not one of those lawyers who hated being a lawyer," Porter said. She just wanted to make a documentary.

When Porter first applied to the Ford Foundation for a filmmaking grant, she was turned down. But a staff member introduced her to Rapping, one of their grantees. He invited Porter, who lives in New Jersey, to come to Birmingham and film the public defenders participating in his program, then called the Southern Public Defender Training Center, at an annual July retreat.

That was four years ago.

"As a lawyer I was blown away by what he was trying to do," Porter said. "I knew nothing about public defenders. I'm a lawyer, I'm interested in social justice and I've been in the news business — and so I figured if I don't know anything about it, other people won't either."

Rapping started the group on a shoestring in 2007 with an initial class of 16 new lawyers. That has evolved into Gideon's Promise, which provides training and a supportive community for more than 200 public defenders at all phases of their careers, with the mission of changing the culture of indigent defense.

An alumnus of Washington's renowned Public Defender Service, Rapping moved to Atlanta in 2004 to start an honors program for Georgia's new public defender system, but it was defunded two years later. After helping rebuild the New Orleans public defender program, he conceived the idea for an independent nonprofit to connect idealistic public defenders from local programs across the country.

"The public defender world is a pretty fractured world. People feel isolated and they don't know others who share their vision," he said.

The question that the young lawyers in the film are constantly asked is "How can you represent those people?" Porter said. But she said her question was: How is it to be a young lawyer in your first job and be responsible for someone's freedom?

"It's a huge job. You're figuring out your work, your personal life — and you may be the only hope for people for staying out of prison — sometimes for life. It's a lot of pressure."

TATTOOS FOR LOSSES

The film opens with Williams making an impassioned closing argument that reveals why he works so hard for an unending stream of clients with bad odds.

"I want to make sure this kid gets a fair trial," he tells the jury. "They [prosecutors] say this isn't a big case. That's not true. This is a huge case with huge consequences. If you do not acquit this boy, he will become a convicted felon. That's what this case represents."

The camera then cuts to a wall in Williams' office that he's papered with his winning verdicts. The cases he's lost should be displayed as well, he says, so he decides to tattoo them on his back. "I've only got five and I hope not to get any more," he tells the camera.

Gideon's Army shows how Williams' own life experience motivated him to earn a law degree from the University of Georgia and become a public defender.

His mother became pregnant with him while she was on the run from the law in Georgia and gave him to her mother to raise in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He never knew his father. Now 30, he's worked in Gainesville, Ga., for five years.

"I wanted to prevent people from being abused by the system. I look at it as the first opportunity a poor person may have to get the same or better as a rich person — and I take pride in that," said Williams, who was named one of the Daily Report's "On the Rise" lawyers under 40 last year.

When Porter started filming the public defenders in Rapping's program, she didn't know what her story was. "It's not a scripted story," she said. Instead, she had to go out and find it.

Porter said she'd shoot some footage and then talk about it with her editor, Matt Hamachak. Then she'd go shoot some more.

Deciding which lawyers to chronicle hinged on which judges would allow her to film in their courtrooms. "I was following more people in other states, but I was having trouble getting access to the courts," she said.

Porter said Deal and Simmons gave her permission to record their courtrooms, as long as she observed certain rules, such as not filming the jury or undercover officers.

She found that Williams and Alexander tried cases, which is unusual, she said, in a system where 90 percent to 95 percent of the criminally accused in the U.S. take a plea deal, even if innocent.

Prosecutors know that many public defenders won't take cases to trial, Porter said. "One thing about Rap's lawyers is they will go to trial," Porter said. "His program gives people enough confidence in their trial skills that they will take cases to court."

Each of the three public defenders in Gideon's Army represents a common public defender personality type, Porter said. "There's the warrior — that's Travis. He fights for what he thinks is right. There's the social worker — that's Brandy. She likes to help people, counsel kids and give them advice. And then there's June. She's more mature, the do-gooder person."

When asked the most important trait for his job, Williams replied, "thick skin."

"You've got to be able to take a punch from a judge, a punch from a prosecutor, sometimes a kick from a client," he said.

Williams compared his relationship with clients to an arranged marriage. "As a public defender you are put in a very difficult situation. You are asked to represent people who did not want you and who did not choose you," he explained.

Alexander's reply was empathy. "You can't do this work if you can't empathize with the people you're helping," she said. "A lot of people start out that way and lose it."

BURNOUT

Alexander took a year off because she feared she was losing her own empathy. But she said she missed being a public defender and returned to the fray, this time in Naples, Fla., where her caseload has dropped from 120 cases, her load in Clayton County, to 70.

Williams said he has no intention of quitting. "As long as I'm a lawyer, I'm going to be a public defender. This is what I'm supposed to be doing. This is an elite fraternity, and I wouldn't ever want to leave it."

His idea of burnout is different from others. "People think it's something you reach and you're done. I think it's something that creeps up on you constantly and you have to deal with it. People's lives are in your hands."

"You are going to sacrifice a lot if you are going to do this job well," Williams said. "You can't do it in 40 hours [a week]. You probably can't do it in 50 hours or even in 60 hours."

But he is atypical.

Burnout is a major problem for young public defenders. It is one of the primary reasons Rapping started Gideon's Promise. "The most common call I get from lawyers is, "You know what, Rap, I need to quit this job. It's just too hard," he said during the post-film discussion.

"They come in with a lot of passion but the caseloads are crushing and the resources aren't there. Some end up quitting, and some get resigned to the status quo."

For that reason, Gideon's Promise has expanded its mission from training new public defenders to providing further training and leadership development to its graduates, public defender chiefs and trainers. It's just added a program to recruit law clerks from around the country to Southern public defender offices.

The HBO film comes at an opportune moment for Gideon's Promise. It needs grassroots contributions to replace seed grants from the Ford Foundation, Department of Justice and other groups. Local public defender offices whose lawyers participate in the organization also contribute to the $1 million annual budget.

Porter has just completed another film, Spies in Mississippi, about the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Her next project is based on The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a book by Michelle Alexander that became a New York Times best-seller after its 2010 publication.

"I feel that I'm using my legal powers for good," she said. "Lawyers are storytellers. That's our job, to make something complicated comprehensible."