March 18th or this year marked the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court decision that insisted all defendants have the right to representation by an attorney, regardless of their ability to pay. Half a century later, we’re still far from fulfilling Gideon’s promise.
The failure of our criminal justice system is impossible to ignore in many communities but practically invisible in the mainstream media. That’s why I was so excited to read at Colorlines about HBO’s July 1st release of “Gideon’s Army,” a new documentary on public defenders working in the Deep South. Check out the trailer below (transcript after the jump) and watch an extended clip here.
Court official: Raise your right hands. Do you swear to affirm the testimony you are about to give as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
Defendants: <murmurs of assent>
Public defender #1: When you work as a public defender, you say to someone “I’m a public defender,” and then they’re like, “What does that mean?” “I defend people who are charged with committing crimes.” And then they’ll say, “How can you defend those people?” I tell them the truth. It’s about the sanctity of human liberty and the cost of it if you want to take it.
Judge: Mr. Cassidy, having been found guilty of possession of crack cocaine, this court sentences you to 16 years.
Speaker: You are doing the most difficult work in the most difficult places. I know one issue is certainly money, but another issue is that it’s just too hard. “I feel defeated.”
Public defender #2: (Sound of coins) This is all the money I have in the world right now.
Public defender #3: We’ll start with the non-indicted, it’s a boatload of these.
Defendant #1: I’ve been screwed around the first time by a public defender, and when they told me I had another one, I figured my life is completely over.
Public defender #4: (To another defendant) I wish I could say that we were going to go in and win this case. I just don’t know. And that’s the God honest truth. (In a whisper) Jesus, Joseph and Mary.
Friend: If you’re going to rescue people from hell, you do have to go to hell to do it, right? And if you don’t you won’t rescue anyone.
Defendant #2: I’m scared, man.
Public defender #5: I know. But keep your head up. Don’t look down. It’s almost over.
Public defender #5: They have the gall to say that this is not a big case. There are huge consequences. If you want to take my liberty, you got to do it right. And if you don’t, quit.
Court official: All rise.
Public defender #5: I don’t know how you can do this work for any period of time and not begin to love it. Either this is your call or this ain’t.