Gideon’s Army

Gideon’s Army

Directed by: Dawn Porter
96 minutes

New England Premiere

“I’ll never get used to people going to prison,” says Travis, one of the young public defenders profiled in this documentary. “Either this is your cause, or it ain’t.” Keeping people out of jail is clearly Travis’s cause. He tattoos on his back the names of the defendants whose cases he has lost.

Public defenders work for low pay under tough conditions and see very little recognition or reward. Often they must defend people who have committed terrible crimes and show no remorse. Other times, they see innocent people go to jail despite their best efforts.

GIDEON’S ARMY follows several public defenders through a tiny fraction of their caseload, showing their struggle with a criminal justice system that is often biased against the poor and uneducated. We watch them prepare for cases in which they feel that a “guilty” verdict will permanently destroy a defendant’s life. What keeps them going under such pressure? And does it matter, in the end, whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty?

Director Dawn Porter’s film provides a rare, lucid look at an underobserved American phenomenon: heroism within the practice of law. As another of the movie’s public defenders puts it, quoting Nobel Peace Prize–winner Elie Wiesel, “Our lives are not our own. They belong to those who need us desperately.”

—Anya Weber