Convicted of theft after representing himself at trial, Gideon appealed the verdict to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in a landmark 1963 decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, that the right to counsel in criminal court is fundamental to the American system of justice.
The decision ushered in a nationwide system of public defenders representing clients who are too poor to pay for their legal defense. Today the disparity between the haves and have-nots is such that most of the 12 million people arrested in the United States each year will be represented by one of the country’s 15,000 public defenders.
The processing of these cases, in which most of those arrested plead guilty to reduce their sentences, lacks the high drama of television shows like “Law & Order” and its spinoffs. But thousands of lives are in the balance and can be destroyed even before trial. June Hardwick, a Mississippi public defender, cites the case of a skilled laborer who lost her house, job and possessions while in pretrial detention because she couldn’t afford bail. (Ms. Hardwick has since left the profession to go into politics.)
The film devotes most of its attention to Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander, public defenders in Georgia who dedicate their lives to representing America’s underclass. It is emotionally grueling work in which both struggle to maintain their humanity. In the words of Mr. Williams, who handles 120 cases at a time and has no room left for a personal life, “Everybody’s in an emergency state.”
Some of the defenders’ strongest support comes from the Southern Public Defender Training Center, whose charismatic leader, Jonathan Rapping, offers practical instruction and group sessions at which the public defenders air their frustrations and share their war stories. Mr. Rapping praises them as “foot soldiers” who will eventually change “this unjust, cruel, inhumane criminal justice system.”
The public defenders know only too well that many, if not most, of their clients are guilty. Ms. Alexander recalls that one threatened to kill her if she lost the case. Another bragged about raping his 12-year-old daughter. She muses out loud that some people seem to be born bad.
“Gideon’s Army” examines two cases of armed robbery, for which conviction in Georgia carries a minimum sentence of 10 years without parole and a maximum of life imprisonment. In both cases, the movie doesn’t try to assess innocence or guilt but to show its lawyers mounting the best defenses possible with minimal resources.
Mr. Williams represents Branden Lee Mullin, a young man who robbed a pizzeria of $96 with his best friend. Ms. Alexander’s 17-year-old client, Demontes Regary Wright, is arrested by a swarm of police officers in a raid and charged with armed robbery. Mr. Wright, she says, is exceptionally bright. If he succeeds in avoiding prison, she believes he has the potential to lead a productive life. The film’s last 15 minutes are devoted to his trial, at which she tries to establish “reasonable doubt” about his guilt.
“Gideon’s Army” is a bare film with no narrator and a minimal soundtrack. That’s all it needs to grab you by the throat.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan and will be shown on HBO starting on Monday at 5:20 a.m and 9 p.m.
Directed by Dawn Porter; written by Ms. Porter and Matthew Hamachek; directors of photography, Chris Hilleke and Patrick Sheehan; edited by Mr. Hamachek; music by Paul Brill; produced by Ms. Porter and Julie Goldman; released by HBO Documentary Films. At the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. This film is not rated.