Saturday, March 22, 2014

Gideon's Army (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Gideon’s Army”
Sets Up Camp
At Tropic Cinema

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Filmmaker Dawn Porter started off as a lawyer. Perhaps that’s what gives her such insight into the work of young, determined, idealistic, do-the-right-thing public defenders like Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick -- members of what she terms “Gideon’s Army” in her documentary of that same name.

The title is a reference to Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark Supreme Court decision that ruled state courts are required under the Fourteenth Amendment to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to pay for their own attorneys.

Porter had given up civil litigation to work at ABC News before deciding to make films. A New Yorker, her first foray into documentary films took her to Mississippi to uncover a secret spy agency formed by the state of Mississippi to preserve segregation and maintain white supremacy (“Spies of Mississippi”).

When looking for money to make a second doc, the Ford Foundation pointed her to the issue of public defenders. As a result, she met Jonathan “Rap” Rapping, head of the Southern Public defender Training Center (now known as Gideon’s Promise). He mentors young public defenders as they face staggering caseloads and often-unbeatable odds. Facing long hours, low pay, and little thanks, many of these young lawyers give up during their first year.

So Dawn Porter again flew into Birmingham to make a film in Mississippi.

“Gideon’s Army” follows three cases, each different. Just as each of the determined young PD’s are different. Travis is a fighter; Brandy a bleeding social heart; June is more pragmatic. Yet they battle on for their clients, certain that everyone deserves defense and a fair trial.

By the end of the film one of them prevails, the client being found not guilty. Porter saw the decision as a good one. “I believe without a doubt he was one-hundred-percent innocent,” she said, talking about the film prior to its debut in Key West.

“Gideon’s Army” is coming this Tuesday night to the Tropic Cinema, third in “4 Nights 4 Justice,” a series of films sponsored by the Michael Dively Social Justice and Diversity Endowment. Managed by The Community Foundation of the Florida Keys, the fund was established to promote and strengthen the Key West commitment to equality by raising community awareness.

A champagne reception starts at 6 p.m. Dawn Porter will be on hand to introduce “Gideon’s Army” and hold a Q&A afterwards.

You’ll learn that Travis and Brandy are still fighting the good fight as public defenders, while June has been appointed as a judge in Jackson, Mississippi. However, she still volunteers for public defender work in other jurisdictions.

“They just moved me so deeply with their dedication to their clients,” Dawn Porter says of these young public defenders. “If I had to start my law career over I might just go in that direction.”

Clarence Earl Gideon, the defendant who was denied an attorney by Florida courts, and changed the nation’s laws with his appeal to the US Supreme Court, would likely approve.

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