By Mace Yampolsky
There is a film called “True Believers in Justice,” which I would recommend to anyone who is interested in representation of the accused. The filmmaker, Dawn Porter, follows Travis Williams, a young public defender in the Deep South who struggles against long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads to bring justice to all.
Many people who wanted to be lawyers never wanted to represent“criminals.” But unlike Travis Williams, most never wanted to be a public defender; most people don’t understand how anyone could represent people who did terrible things. “Criminals” were not people that deserved help.
Then, in 2009, while working in the legal department at A&E Television, Dawn met Jonathan Rapping, the founder of what’s now Gideon’s Promise. Jonathan invited me to his client-centered legal training program in Alabama.
At the start of training, Mr. Rapping asked each lawyer to articulate why he or she chose to become a public defender. One young man said he had a brother with Downs syndrome, so he wanted to help people who could not navigate the legal system for themselves. Another said he had been arrested as a teenager, so he wanted to help kids like him who didn’t know their rights.
Dawn was moved by their stories. She learned more about the true state of the criminal justice system during that week than she knew from all her years practicing law. She wanted other people to learn about what they were doing and so decided to make this film.
She was horrified by what I learned about the criminal justice system (welcome to my world). Innocent people, in prison for months or years, sometimes plead guilty to get out of jail; onerous sentences are too often given for minor crimes; people can lose civil rights, like the right to vote, as a result of criminal convictions.
In America, a felony conviction can be a lifelong sentence because of this multitude of collateral consequences.
She also saw what a difference it made to have lawyers like Travis fighting hard for poor people’s rights. She saw him tell clients and their families that they were facing long sentences, outrageous bail terms or prison. But she saw him deliver even the worst news with compassion, and she saw him fight for every client. He’s inspired her to judge less and listen more, to try to put herself in the position of people who face a terribly structured system that often provides justice to neither the victim nor the accused.
Thanks to Travis and the other young lawyers she met on this journey, she can proudly say, “I’m a ‘true believer’ in their cause.” This type of change in one’s belief system is akin to a religious epiphany.
This movie is part of a series produced by independent filmmakers who have received major support from the Ford Foundation and additional support from the nonprofit Sundance Institute. Dawn Porter directed and produced“Gideon’s Army” (Earl Gideon’s hand-written petition to the US Supreme court resulted in the current system of public defenders and appointed counsel to provide indigent defense.)
If this interests you, read the book “Gideon’s Trumpet,“ by Anthony Lewis), a feature documentary about representing indigent people in the Deep South that is premiering at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and will be broadcast later this year on HBO. Dawn is a graduate of Swarthmore College and the Georgetown University Law Center. You go, girl! — Mace
Mace J. Yampolsky is a Board Certified Criminal Law Specialist, 625 South Sixth St., Las Vegas, NV 89101; He can be reached at: Phone 702-385-9777 or fax 702-385-300. His website is located at: www.macelaw.com.