Three years ago, Dawn Porter decided it was time for a change. So, after five years as a litigation associate in Baker & Hostetler's Washington, D.C., office and another 12 at in-house jobs with ABC and A&E, she set her sights on making documentary movies.
An amateur photographer whose experience at media companies was limited mostly to advising producers on legal and ethical issues, Porter had no idea how to shoot or edit film at the time. Nonetheless, she felt her career as an attorney had equipped her with the kind of storytelling skills essential to being a successful documentarian.
"I think legal training is very rigorous: You do your research, you need to write well, and you work hard," says the 46-year-old Georgetown University Law Center graduate. "If you have those fundamentals, the rest of it you can learn as you go."
Porter proved to be a quick studyand her decision not to stray far in choosing the subject of her maiden documentary was probably a wise move. That film, Gideon's Army, won top editing honors in the U.S. documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival when it debuted there last month. It is scheduled to be shown at the Miami International Film Festival next month and to air on HBO over the summer. The timing couldn't be better.
The 96-minute film follows a handful of public defenders enrolled in a unique training program designed to both hone their courtroom skills and boost their confidence. The Gideon of the title, of course, refers to Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court case that established that even those who can't pay for a lawyer have the right to one. With the landmark ruling's 50th anniversary approaching in March, Gideon's Army captures the sorry state of indigent defense in the U.S. a half-century after the court left it to individual states to devise their own ways of ensuring that right.
It's not news that the nation's 15,000 full-time public defenders are overworked and underpaid. Recent studies have found that while the American Bar Association recommends that lawyers for the poor take on a maximum of 150 felony cases a year, many of those doing the job often juggle more than double that number. In Florida, one of the states Porter examines in her film, public defenders handle an average of 500 felony cases a year.
Not surprisingly, the exploding caseloads undermine the quality of the work public defenders perform for their clients. A 2012 report produced by New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice found, for example, that such lawyers spend an average of just 6 minutes on an arraignment.
Despite her prior career, Porter was unfamiliar with this grim corner of the legal profession when she set out to make Gideon's Army. "It's really horrific and very shocking to me," she says. "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."
Porter got the idea for the documentary after the Ford Foundation rejected her application for a grant to fund a different film. A program officer in the foundation's criminal justice division suggested she contact Ford grantee Jonathan Rapping, the founder and CEO of a Birmingham-based nonprofit now known as Gideon's Promise, with an eye toward dcoumenting the initiative. After traveling to Alabama to watch Rapping's boot campstyle program in action, Porter decided it could serve as the basis of a story she felt compelled to tell.
Rapping, who spent nine years as a public defender in Washington, D.C., developed Gideon's Promiseoriginally dubbed the Southern Public Defenders Training Centerwith his wife, Ilham Askia, out of the couple's Atlanta living room in 2006. By then, he had helped launch Georgia's first statewide public defenders system and helped rebuild the indigent defense program in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.