Public Defender Travis Williams doesn't have the resources to test fingerprints. His client faces 10 years to life in prison, but Williams operates on a shoestring budget. So he does what he has to do. He tricks the prosecutor into testing the fingerprints by making a motion to have them barred as evidence.
It works. Now Williams can show the fingerprints aren't his client's.
This is one bright spot in the award-winning documentary film "Gideon's Army," which follows three Southern public defenders as they give their all for their clients. The trio struggle under crippling caseloads that entail long hours and salaries that barely enable them to pay their student loan debt. Filmmaker Dawn Porter does an amazing job of capturing the emotional toll the job takes on them, and the unflinching spirits that motivate them to keep going.
About 130 people attended a free screening of "Gideon's Army" Tuesday evening at the Myrna Loy Center in Helena, many of them public defenders themselves.
At the start of the evening, Montana State Sen. Dave Wanzenried (D-Missoula) asked all those who work as public defenders to stand. Then he asked those with fewer than 75 cases to sit. All remained standing. One hundred. A few sit down. 125, 150... At 200 cases two of the newest public defenders in Montana's Helena office remain standing.
It's a situation that is repeated across the country -- public defenders with too many cases to properly do their jobs. And yet, at times they still manage to pull off the impossible and win not-guilty verdicts for their clients.
Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case the film is named for, Gideon v. Wainwright, that defendants unable to afford an attorney must have one appointed to them, our states' and counties' public defender offices remain chronically underfunded and understaffed even as their counterparts in prosecutors' offices seem to have unlimited resources.
That's the situation here in Montana. An attempt to get more funding for Montana's Office of the Public Defender this legislative session was unsuccessful. Legislators refused to hire any additional attorneys, and would only dedicate a small additional amount of money for contract attorneys.
"Gideon's Army" paints a vivid picture of the dedication and creativity it takes public defenders like Travis Hoffman to represent their clients in a court system stacked against them. The film airs on HBO this summer.