Though public defenders across the country share a similar plight, Rapping says the problems he encountered in the South were particularly acute. "There was this culture that existed in much of the South that created very low expectations," he says. "I was shocked by the low expectations that many defenders had for themselves." Ultimately, he decided he could do more to raise those expectations by training public defenders outside a government setting.
The result, as Porter's film shows, is a program that begins each January with a new group of up to 50 lawyersmost of them just starting their public service careers in states throughout the Southdescending on the Birmingham headquarters of Gideon's Promise. Once there, participants dive into an intensive, 14-day training program built around tutorials in such courtroom fundamentals as cross-examining witnesses and constructing opening statements and closing arguments.
Aside from sharing practical advice, Rapping and roughly 60 instructorsall of whom are either current or former public defendersalso aim to revive the confidence of attorneys prone to questioning whether society values what they do. Following the initial training, the group reconvenes every six months over the ensuing three years to brush up on their skills and strengthen their bonds. The cost of the program is split between Gideon's Promise and each participant's employer.
"There are many young and idealistic lawyers coming out of law schools who want to do a good job but they enter a system that doesn't offer this," Rapping says. "And the people that grow in this system adopt that mentality." For that reason, he adds, Gideon's Promise generally accepts only those with relatively little experience. "We recruit a class of young public defenders or lawyers that have been practicing for less than three years, so they haven't developed bad habits that are hard to get rid of."
June Hardwick, one of the lawyers featured in Gideon's Army, is typical. A community activist since the late 1980s, Hardwick saw indigent defense as a natural extension of her long-standing commitment to help the less fortunate. In 2007, she took a job as a public defender in Jackson, Miss. Before long, though, the work became daunting. It didn't help that she was having trouble chipping away at her mountain of law school debt on an annual salary of about $53,000.
Hardwick enrolled in Gideon's Promise in 2009 and completed the program last year. It was, she says, "the most intensive training I've ever participated in" and an experience that, simply put, "made me a better attorney."
Almost important as the skill-building lessons was the time spent after class with other public defenders facing the same systemic challenges and feeling the same frustrations. "We'd all hang out after hours, until late at night, all talking and getting to know each other," says the 37-year-old single mother. "These friendships were perfect for when we needed a boost."
Of course, as Hardwick would acknowledge, such a boost can be fleeting. Midway through her trainingand while Porter was still putting Gideon's Army togethershe decided for various reasons, some of them financial, to start her own practice, take on private clients, and cut back her indigent defense to part time. For this particular foot soldier, it wasn't a total surrender, but a sign of the toll the battle can take.
I made the film for people like me, who don't understand how it is possible that somebody innocent but poor could be in prison.
- Dawn Porter, attorney and filmmaker of Gideon's Army
Diane Jeantet writes for The Am Law Daily, a Daily Report affiliate.