Dawn Porter's documentary Gideon's Army will soon appear on HBO. It was featured last night by John Oliver on the Daily Show. The film tells the story of the daily heroism of public defenders. I tried a dozen or so drug busts, purse snatching, armed robbery, and homicide cases as a public defender from 1980 - 1983 in Newark, Elizabeth, Jersey City, and New Brunswick, New Jersey.
I was a pool attorney - not a staff attorney - of the Office of the Public Defender, State of New Jersey. No lawyers have ever made me more proud of our profession than the career lawyers of that Office who beginning in 1982 fought over two hundred capital cases without a single execution before repeal in 2007. death penalty . In addition to the daily burden of defense their systematic investigation and advocacy led to a consent decree which eliminated the notorious highway racial profiling of the New Jersey State Police, transforming patrol practice which now requires video of every auto search.
I try to tell their story every chance I get. (See, for example, my People's Electric - Engaged Legal Education at Rutgers Newark Law School in the 1960's and 1970's Fordham Urban Law Journal 2013; or the symposium Legislation, Litigation, Reflection and Repeal: The Legislative Abolition of the Death Penalty in New Jersey , Seton Hall Legislative Journal, 2008.
Dawn Porter tells the story of public defenders - the short-handed army spawned by the Supreme Court in 1963 in Gideon v. Wainwright - the incomplete triumph of which is now marking its fiftieth anniversary. Tragically we incarcerate more people per capita than any other country - including many we unashamedly criticize. And that burden falls most heavily on the descendants of those we once enslaved, or whose land we took.