Movie Review: Gideon’s Army

Brandy Alexander (HBO)

Brandy Alexander (HBO)

Since Travis Williams, one of the dedicated (like, really dedicated) public defender was just featured on Last Week Tonight in a characteristically hilarious and infuriating segment on the hideous, un-American farce that is the public defender system, here’s my review in the AV Club. A clip from the thing:

Named for Clarence Earl Gideon (Henry Fonda played him in a movie once), an indigent thief who fought all the way to the Supreme Court for everyone’s right to an attorney, Gideon’s Army portrays that right as, for most defendants, being almost irrelevant in the current legal climate, especially in the Southern states where the film’s protagonists practice. If the film has a villain, it’s the adoption of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes which, as one PD explains, results in “90 to 95 per cent of all defendants pleading guilty…to something” in order to avoid a guaranteed decade or more in prison. So, in a state with mandatory minimum sentences, a young defendant is often faced with a wrenching gamble: Plead guilty and receive a mandatory ten year sentence without the possibility of parole or go to trial where, if convicted, he’ll go to prison forever. There’s a third outcome, of course—freedom—but that, as Gideon’s Army reveals with terrifying clarity, is a possibility beset with so many systemic obstacles as to, at times, seem nearly impossible. As that defender puts it resignedly, “Because the system is designed to force them to plead guilty and it punishes their failure to comply, it’s all about lessening the penalty. That’s what we do.”

Honestly, I’m still shattered from this movie.

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