"Gideon's Army," a documentary about the struggles facing public defenders in the South, is set to make its national television debut July 1 on HBO. One the lawyers at the heart of the film, Jonathan Rapping, spent the first decade of his legal career as a public defender in Washington and said the experience played a major part in informing the work he does today supporting defenders nationwide.
The film, which screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, follows the lives of three young public defenders and features the work of Gideon's Promise, an Atlanta-based organization founded by Rapping that supports public defender offices across the South. In a phone interview today, Rapping said Gideon's Promise was a product of his desire to transfer the successful model of the D.C. public defender office to offices elsewhere in the United States.
Rapping spent 10 years with the public defender office in Washington, first as a staff attorney and later as the training director. He said he took for granted the fact that he was in "an environment where excellent representation of poor people was expected."
"Everyone in the office expected it and anything less was unacceptable," Rapping said. "That ethos affected the way the entire criminal justice community viewed the public defenders." As a result of that mindset, he said, prosecutors and judges also expected excellence from defenders.
After leaving Washington in 2004, Rapping headed south, working with public defenders in Georgia, New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama. He said was "struck" by the different culture when it came to criminal defense. "It was an environment where the expectation for what poor people deserved in the justice system was embarrassingly low."
Gideon's Promise trains annual classes of young public defenders, providing regular support for three years as part of the program. "We're trying to build the kind of community of committed public defenders in the South that I took for granted in D.C.," he said. "Gideon's Army," directed by Dawn Porter, follows three lawyers in the Gideon's Promise program.
Rapping said he'd received a positive response to the film so far following screenings across the country. The HBO premiere will take the movie to a new level of exposure, and Rapping said he hoped it would help the general public better understand what public defenders do, why it matters and "help us garner support for these lawyers who really need it."
The film will air at 9 p.m. on July 1.