Passionate public defender tattoos names of defeated clients on back

Public defender Travis Williams in court in the documentary "Gideon's Army" directed by Dawn Porter. (Photo Credit: courtesy HBO)

Public defender Travis Williams in court in the documentary "Gideon's Army" directed by Dawn Porter. (Photo Credit: courtesy HBO)

Travis Williams is passionate about his calling. The Georgia-based public defender is so committed to being an advocate whenever he loses a case he tattoos the name of his client on his back.

He says the tattoos are a visual display of his commitment to never forget. So far, out of 25 felony jury trials he has had eight losses inscribed on his back.

“[The tattoos are] a mural that is representative of the career path I have chosen. It’s a constant reminder of my belief to fight for the U.S. Constitution and defend the rights of the accused.”

As many as 100 clients at a time

The 30-year-old has been a public defender, or advocate for those who cannot afford to hire an attorney, for five years. He works as a senior attorney in Gainesville, Georgia, where he handles Class 1 felonies or the most serious crimes.

Williams has a heavy caseload of about 100 clients at any given time.

Still, he says he has no ambitions to convert to being a well-paid lawyer in the private sector. He chose to become a public defender to give the poor the right to a “level of legal representation that is on par or superior to a paid attorney.”

Williams is one of three young idealistic African-American public defenders who feature in Gideon’s Army, an upcoming HBO documentary.

‘A warrior for justice’

“Travis is a warrior,” says Dawn Porter, the corporate lawyer-turned-filmmaker, who produced and directed the film. “He’s a warrior for justice. He never stops fighting and his passion is to never stop winning. He’s a brilliant lawyer and a compassionate man.”

Four years in the making, the feature-length film follows the personal stories of Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick. The trio is part of a community of over 200 public defenders across the South who have been trained, mentored and supported by an Atlanta organization called Gideon’s Promise.

Backed by their charismatic mentor Jonathan Rapping, who heads Gideon’s Promise, the dedicated attorneys struggle against long hours, low pay, overwhelming workloads and limited resources to provide fair trials with reasonable outcomes.

“I see this as a civil rights movement,” says Rapping, a former public defender in Washington, D.C. area. He says his lawyers are “on the frontline against incredible odds” to give quality and compassionate defense to those people who may not necessarily get justice in the criminal justice system.

Porter says the challenges facing public defenders “is such an unexplored topic.”

Public defenders pushing the boundaries

In fact, the numbers are staggering. Every year in the United States, 12 million people are arrested. Eighty percent of those individuals that get caught up in the criminal justice system are represented by one of only 15,000 public defenders.

Fifty years after the groundbreaking Gideon ruling that established the right for criminal defendants to have a lawyer at no cost, public defenders are being pushed to the limits and America’s poor are paying the price.

Rapping says the practical and emotional support his organization offers is critical because public defenders are tremendously underfunded and overburdened. In just one example, the average caseload for a public defender in Miami Dade County, Florida, is 500 felonies and 225 misdemeanors.

Over time working in a broken criminal system takes its toll, he says. Not surprisingly, many public defender offices have a high turnover rate.

“Public defenders are overwhelmed with more cases that they can possibly handle,” says Rapping. “They don’t have resources and work in a system that wants to process human beings quickly. After a while they become desensitized to the inhumanity of the system.”

Deep South is full of ‘poor suspects

The problem is exasperated in the Deep South with high bonds, minimum mandatory sentences and a culture that is traditionally “tough on crime.” Indeed, the system puts tremendous pressure on “poor suspects” to accept a plea bargain and plead guilty to reduce their sentence and avoid lengthy jail terms.

“Spend just an hour in prison and tell me if you wouldn’t do anything to get your sentence reduced,” says Porter. The reality is “we are incarcerating and disenfranchising poor people at alarming rates. Then you become a felon with the collateral damage of being a convicted felon.”

Indeed, the injustices that result from a skewed criminal justice system are biased against the poor, people of color and the most vulnerable. People of color, especially black American men, also continue to be disproportionately imprisoned, policed, and sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts.

Indigent criminal defendants plead guilty 90 percent of the time. You do not have to be a mathematician to calculate at least some of those convicted are innocent people languishing in prison for months or even years.

Gideon’s Army will air on Monday, July 1st at 9pm on HBO

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