Who defends the poor? Gideon’s army


Thanks to a landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, the American legal system provides public defenders for those who face criminal charges and cannot afford lawyers. “Gideon’s Army,” a documentary about three of these unsung heroes, plays Thursday, August 22, at Edgartown’s Harbor View Hotel as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. It tells an important, if grim, story that deserves a wide audience.

“Gideon’s Army” opens with the camera trained on Attorney Travis Williams speaking in court on behalf of a defendant — not yet an adult — who is about become a convicted felon despite the efforts of this dedicated public defender. Mr. Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick all work as public defenders under the auspices of the Southern Public Defenders Training Center. They are among the 15,000 lawyers responsible for most of the 12 million criminal cases litigated annually in the U.S. That statistic alone is a shocker.

The three routinely handle 120 to 150 cases at a time. Not only does the work involve backbreaking caseloads and long hours, it underpays lawyers likely to have student loan bills that run into six figures. Ms. Alexander explains that 90 to 95 percent of her clients plead guilty, regardless of whether they actually committed the crime they’re accused of. They do it because it provides them with a shorter sentence meted out in a system that is weighted against them. But it means they can’t vote and can’t get a job. “Everybody is in an emergency state,” Ms. Alexander said.

As viewers follow the daily routines of the three public defenders and hear them recount their experiences, story after disturbing story emerges. Mr. Williams’s client Branden, a 20-year-old charged with armed robbery, was homeless, jobless and without a family before a gay couple adopted him. Despite their support, Branden goes to jail, after his best friend turns witness for the prosecution and Branden must plead guilty to a lesser charge.

Anxiety makes Ms. Alexander’s hair fall out. She learns that one of her clients plans to murder her if he gets convicted. Another case demonstrates that the issue is not always about innocence, when a client brags to her about raping his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Explaining how after paying her bills she was left with $20 to support herself and her son, Ms. Hardwick quits to take a more lucrative legal job and enter politics.

Dawn Porter, who co-wrote as well as directed the film and will lead a discussion following the screening, doesn’t waste time on cinematic frills. Instead she relies on her three subjects and their clients to deliver the message through interviews and fly-on-the-wall camera work. “Gideon’s Army” was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2013. It’s not hard to understand why it lost to “Blood Brothers,” a film with a more redemptive message about the power of love. “Gideon’s Army” focuses on a system that cries out for repairs. It’s a world that most Islanders will never experience firsthand, but one they need to understand.

The final film in the M.V. Film Festival summer series is “A.C.O.D.,” which plays Wednesday, August 28, at the Chilmark Community Center. The initials in the title of this comedy, starring Adam Scott and Amy Poehler, stand for Adult Children of Divorce.

The M.V. Film Center will be closed for a private event on Thursday, August 22; on Friday, August 23, and Saturday, August 24, it will screen “Much Ado About Nothing,” and “20 Feet from Stardom.” “The Audience” returns for one night on Tuesday, August 20, and Woody Allen’s latest film, “Blue Jasmine,” comes to the Film Center on Sunday, August 25.

“Gideon’s Army,” Thursday, August 22, 8 pm, Harbor View Hotel, Edgartown. $16; $8 members; $5 students. For information and reservations, visit mvff.org.

“Much Ado About Nothing,” Friday, August 23, and Saturday, August 24, 7:30 pm, M.V. Film Center.

“20 Feet from Stardom,” Friday, August 23, and Saturday, August 24, 9:30 pm, M.V. Film Center.

“Blue Jasmine,” Sunday, August 25, 7:30 pm, M.V. Film Center.

“The Audience,” Tuesday, August 27, 7:30 pm, M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $7 for members. For information and reservations, see mvfilmsociety.com.