Reviewing “Gideon’s Army”

If you’re a public defender who hasn’t seen or heard of the new documentary, “Gideon’s Army,” you need to get out more. It’s been making the rounds of film festivals all year, it got a lot of attention at Sundance and critics seem to be liking it. After its debut on HBO on July 1, many of you have probably had a chance to see it so it’s time to make the call: What did you think?

Public defenders and criminal defense lawyers around the web have been weighing in and the consensus seems to be that, while it’s nice to see a documentary devoted to what we do, the film is a bag of mixed messages at best, and dangerously misleading at worst.

To start off, Gamso for the Defense has an excellent review, asking:

Which truth is it that Dawn Porter, herself an attorney, is trying to tell in Gideon’s Army a documentary film that won the Editing Award at Sundance this year and premiered on HBO Monday night?*

  • That public defenders work hard for their clients?
  • That public defenders are underresourced?
  • That public defenders care?
  • That public defender burnout is real but a good pep talk will get them over it and all will be right and good again?
  • That Jon Rapping is something of a hero?
  • That the PDs on the line are black while the supervisors and trainers and the folks who fund them are while?
  • That we really do need a public defender system, and by god, we’ve got one we can be proud of?
  • That the system works because if you’re truly innocent, you won’t be convicted?

Really, it’s all of them. Each at 24 frames a second or whatever the current technological equivalent. And that’s a problem.

Norm de Guerre at Chasing Truth, Catching Hell, picks up on a similar theme:

I see why Ms. Porter didn’t want to make Gideon’s Army too depressing, but the happy ending gives the viewer an artificial sense of a young public defender’s efficacy: that is, that the systemic inequities of our justice system can be overcome by idealism alone. Idealism is so featured in the documentary, it is almost a character in itself. Idealism is the true hero of the story.
. . .
Gideon’s Army is noticeably silent on those inequities in our justice system that cannot be overcome solely through plucky idealism.

Gideon, of A Public Defender (the erstwhile founder of this very blog!) also found the film lacking in specifics and detail about the extent and nature of the challenges of this work:

So what did I get from this documentary? That a lot of public defenders are passionate, hard working, underpaid lawyers who do their best for their clients against some odds?

But we never really get a sense for just how overworked they are; or how poor their funding is; or just how overwhelming the system can be.

We don’t see the “meet and greet pleas”; we don’t see the failure to investigate because there’s a lack of funding; we don’t see plea negotiations where prosecutors play hardball because there are mandatory-minimums; we don’t see suppression hearings where the police officers violate Constitutional rights.

We are told that a client in the film has decided to accept a plea, but we don’t see it: isn’t that the real tragedy of this system? To see the balancing that people have to do in order to come to the point where they abandon their hopes and desires because they are faced with certain doom?

Isn’t that the failure of this system: that we punish people for exercising their Constitutional rights? That the presumption of guilt is so strong that in almost all circumstances the risk-benefit analysis is not in your favor? That jury selection brings a parade of people all too eager to convict.

Personally, I agree with all of the above. There just seem to be so many small ways the film could have easily given a clearer picture of the challenges of being a public defender. For example, just a bit of data on average salaries of public defenders vs. prosecutors vs. private attorneys would have provided a lot of context to the financial challenges, while a passing mention of the massive amount of debt most public defenders have from paying or law school would have done exactly the same. As far as workload goes, some mention of average workload for PDs across the nation would have added context to the complaints of overwork in the film. Other data, such as the percentage of criminal cases that end with pleas, jury trials, bench trials, or dismissals, would have rounded out the picture. These sorts of small additions would have made the film much more informative and reduced the risk that the average viewer will walk away thinking there’s nothing wrong with our justice system that a little hard work, dedication, and idealism on the part of a few public defenders can’t fix.

Of course, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the people who know the most about the subject — those who do this work every day — might be harsh critics. Still, the criticism from the defense bar is mixed with praise. For example, Scott Greenfield of Simple Justice, while critical of the racial messages of the film, gave it an overall thumbs up:

Gideon’s Army is a film of confirmation bias, where one will see in it what one wants to see. Whether it’s the inspiration or the misery, the nobility of defense or the futility. But it tells the story from a side that few ever see, the view of the public defender in the trenches, and it brings a critical perspective that’s missing from almost every story of criminal defense and defendants. It’s mostly an ugly story, because it’s mostly an ugly job. But these three do it because they are the foot soldiers in Gideon’s Army.

And there you have it — a happy ending for this review of reviews. Just as filmaker Dawn Porter seems to have wanted to provide viewers with a happy ending to her film, the urge to end something on a positive note is difficult to avoid. The trouble is, for public defenders, it’s often an impossible thing to do.

If you haven’t yet seen “Gideon’s Army,” you really should. If you have, what did you think?