HBO Summer Documentary: GIDEON’S ARMY

By Jef Dinsmore on Jul 2, 2013 to Documentaries

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Overview: In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for stealing soda and a few dollars from a pool hall. Unable to afford an attorney, he was convicted after representing himself at trial. Gideon appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the right to counsel in a criminal case is fundamental to the American system of justice. Fifty years after that landmark case there are 15,000 public defenders employed in this country.

GIDEON’S ARMY follows a group of idealistic young public defenders in the Deep South, where lawyers face particularly difficult challenges due to high bonds, minimum mandatory sentencing and a culture that is traditionally “tough on crime.” Here is a preview:

Expectations: This is the first documentary in the Summer Series that really intrigues me. I think it does for one main reason; the job of being a Public Defender. A documentary examining this judicial position could be made anywhere chronicling a number of people at task. However, this one, by director and attorney Dawn Porter, takes us to the Deep South. That locale offers a unique backdrop for the piece, I think, as opposed to offices in a major city like NYC. So, the topic and the locale make this film one of interest. Also adding to that interest is the trailer that appears above. It is a vague 46 seconds but that vagueness and the telling sound bites contained therein make me eager to see this film.

Now, you can be sure that this documentary will not celebrate what a wonderful job it is to be a Public Defender. This film appears to show us three different attorneys as they each take on a grueling case and how they toil to do their job. Sometimes, they have to take on a client that the world thinks is guilty and they have to strive to withhold their end of the justice system and defend the accused. The opposite surely happens as well; innocents are falsely accused & small-time crooks are jerked through the system.  I am sure all three scenarios surface in this 97 minute film. I’m eager to watch it.

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Gut Reaction:  Man, I’d say it sucks to be a Public Defender. Though, GIDEON’S ARMY did illustrate the process of going through a particular case & trial for each of the attorneys in this film, the documentary was actually a whole lot more than that. The film was not meant to showcase a day-in-the-life of these professionals defined by one case each but a larger overall look of what it means to be a Public Defender. It shows how stressful the job is; how overwhelmed they are by the crushing caseload; how each client in that 100+ caseload need equal attention and due process and how keeping on task has drained them, disillusioned them and even endangered them. It is no wonder that there is a support group for these crucial players in the American Justice system.

For me there was no jarring scene in the work. It is not what is being shown here that gets you but, what it being said. One of our lead players actually discovers, through confessions from other clients that one particular jailed client was boasting of murdering her if she didn’t get him off. It seemed that she was floored more by the fact of a client who she has bent over backwards to aid was backstabbing her figuratively more than the fact that she was threatened literally!

Another strong instance of the injustice within the system that Public Defenders catch happens when one of the attorneys has a scheduled meeting with a woman who had committed minor crimes and was in holding until trial. The system had her locked up and ignored the fact that she was being threatened with eviction and the removal of her belongings. If she ended up acquitted she had no home in which to return; most likely, though not admitted by her she would turn again to crime aided by the actions of the state. Also, there was some concise well-placed comments from a man by the name of Bret Willis. He is labeled a Senior Public Defender and his words are worth listening too as he boils down into simple sentences what the position and the justice system are truly like in this country. I like what he said and how he explained it.

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In Conclusion:

In all, I liked this documentary as I suspected I would. It leaves you cheering for the likes of attorneys Brandy Alexander, Travis Williams and June Hardwick and hope they keep up the good fight. You hope they can stick with it and right injustices, enable fair and due process and have the stamina to be mighty warriors in GIDEON’S ARMY. What do you think? Please share in the comments.

Other airdates include – on HBO 07.07 at 1:05pm, 07.09 at 4:00pm & 12:15am; 07.13 at 9:45am and 07.19 at 8:15am. On HBO2 find it on 07.03 at 11:15am & 8:00pm. It also can be found on HBOGo.

  • JT

    Jef thanks for this thoughtful write-up. The work they do is beyond commendable. We love our attorneys who continue to fight in spite of a lack of resources, little pay, and grueling caseloads. They truly are soldiers. We are proud to have keep the fire alive in Brandy, June, Travis, and Brett being graduates of our training program and they have encouraged the next generation of PD’s in our program. http://www.gideonspromise.org

  • This looks really compelling, Jef! I’ll definitely give this documentary a look!

  • Jef you just inspired me to watch this one. My father in law is a defense attorney who has defended some real questionables in his time. Think he’d enjoy it? I think it’s interesting that this is out during the Zimmerman trial…










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