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June 24, 2013

HBO movie focuses on Georgia law school graduate

ATHENS — A former Athens rapper and University of Georgia law student is a star in a new documentary set to air on HBO.

But the documentary focuses less on his music and more on his fierce dedication to the impoverished defendants he represents as a Hall County public defender.

“If I don’t do all I need to do, somebody’s going to go to prison,” said Trav Williams, one of three young public defenders profiled in director Dawn Porter’s “Gideon’s Army.”

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is scheduled for HBO broadcast 9 p.m. July 1.

Williams’ job is seven days a week, but he doesn’t mind so much. What he does, he believes, is civil rights work by protecting society’s least powerful people.

One part of “Gideon’s Army” shows a tattoo artist at work on Williams’ back. If he takes a case to court and loses, Williams has his client’s named tattooed on his back. So far, he’s lost eight cases out of 25.

“I really enjoy it and wouldn’t do anything else. It’s not easy, but anything worth doing is not easy,” said Williams, who released his first rap album in 2005, the same year he graduated from UGA law school.

He’s also passionate about his music, but rap is for fun, one of the things that keeps him going in a crazy world.

“I just do it for love and for the opportunity it gives me to express myself,” he said. “I try to keep a couple of things in my life that make sense and help me maintain my sanity. One is my music, and my work is another.”

And in his work as a public defender, he’s doing something he’s wanted to do since he was a youngster growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where like many other young black males, he was routinely harassed by police.

“I always knew I wanted to be a public defender before I knew what a public defender was,” he says in the documentary. “I love my job, I love my work, I love my clients, but there are things I hate. I hate how this country treats poor people. I hate how individuals treat poor people. So that’s my hate that keeps me fighting.”

Williams met Porter, a former corporate lawyer, when Porter visited Alabama’s Gideon’s Promise, which trains public defenders.

The names of both the movie and the training institute refer to the landmark 1953 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, in which a poor Florida man, Clarence Earl Gideon, argued that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed that even poor people had the right to a fair trial. And to get a fair trial, a person needs a lawyer.

The Supreme Court agreed, but 50 years later, the ruling remains more promise than reality, according to Porter.

Authorities arrest about 12 million to 15 million people each year in the United States, far more than any other country in the world. The U.S., Porter says, also leads the world by a wide margin in the number of people behind bars — about 2.3 to 2.5 million at a cost of $74 billion a year.

Public defenders routinely have caseloads in the hundreds, too many to give effective representation to the poor and powerless they serve, argue Porter and Jonathan Rapping, president and founder of Gideon’s Promise.

“The greatest civil rights abuses are happening today to poor people and people of color in the criminal justice system,” Rapping says in the documentary.

In some states, 80 percent of defendants cannot afford a lawyer, said Rapping. In many places, most notoriously in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, there are too few public defenders to effectively represent their clients. The average Miami-Dade public defender has a caseload of about 500 felony cases and 225 misdemeanor cases, all at the same time, according to the movie.

The South in general stands out for the high rate of “broken” justice systems, according to Porter. About 90 percent of people charged with felonies plead guilty, but the choices that leads to many guilty pleas is a grim one, according to Porter — a five-year prison sentence for a guilty plea vs. a possible 10-year sentence if they’re found guilty at trial.

“We are funneling people into the prison system,” Porter said to interviewer Amy Goodman of Democracy Now at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

If Williams keeps on as a public defender, he might run out of space to tattoo clients’ names on his back, but Williams isn’t worried about that.

“As long as I’m a lawyer, I’m going to be a public defender,” he said.

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