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Interview with Dawn Porter

Brandy Alexander

HBO

What made you want to tell this story? Do you have a legal background?

DAWN PORTER

I'm a lawyer. I practiced for five years at a law firm in Washington, DC, then I went in-house to ABC Television and ABC News. But I was a civil litigator, working primarily for corporations. I didn't really have a sense of what life was like for a public defender. I met Jonathan Rapping [the founder and president of Gideon's Promise], who invited me to the training program he runs, and I was blown away by what his students were doing. I didn't know any other lawyers who were that passionate, engaged and talented. I thought it was a story that we don't see a lot, and would make an interesting film.

HBO

How did you find your subjects? They're all extraordinary individuals, but are their stories unique?

DAWN PORTER

They have unique stories, but a common factor is that they're all part of the Gideon's Promise training program. The hardest part was choosing who to follow. I asked for volunteers, and I had a sense that Brandy and Travis would be great. Brandy agreed to let me film at her home from the beginning. Travis took a little more time to convince - about a year and a half.

HBO

How long did it take to film?

DAWN PORTER

I shot the film over three and half years, and started editing about two years into shooting. We had a ton of footage.

HBO

Brandy says she has to cope with heartbreak on a daily basis. How is she able to do it?

DAWN PORTER

That's the key question. Part of what makes a good public defender is being someone who cares - cares about their client and cares about what happens to them. But once you care, it's excruciating. Every job has a particular skill set, and part of the skill set for this job is being able to handle the emotional tax that comes with knowing there's a strong chance of some kind of negative outcome for the personyou're representing.

"If they were doing drug sweeps at Harvard, they might find some marijuana; but they're doing them in poor neighborhoods and charging people with minimum mandatory sentences."

HBO

One of the lawyers says, "I can't be an effective attorney at those numbers." Does their work suffer?

DAWN PORTER

It's impossible for it not to. Travis will say, "My case load is light, I only have 120." In Florida, there's litigation because lawyers were handling 500 felony cases at a time - in addition to the 250 misdemeanors on their plate. There's a great Mother Jones article where they note that in some jurisdictions, if you averaged out the actual case load, you'd have about 7 minutes per client. You can't be an effective lawyer, so what happens is triage. Who's screaming the loudest, what case requires my attention right now? That's another emotional tax.

HBO

Do they prioritize people they think are more likely to be innocent?

DAWN PORTER

Not really. The courts generate a docket and they see what's coming up next. Every once in a while, there's a case where someone might be in danger - a young kid going to prison where he might be targeted, someone facing life in prison or the death penalty. But it's not like being a private practice where you pick the clients and how many you want to take. When you're a public defender, you don't really get to say no.

HBO

Is it difficult for them to defend people they know are guilty?

DAWN PORTER

The constitutional law system is premised on the idea that every case has a prosecution and a defense. It's your job to find the best defense. If a person is guilty, you're defense might not be that strong. But it's the government's job to prove that a person is guilty; it's not a defense lawyer's job to prove that person is innocent. Often what will happen is that the defense lawyer's role is to determine a fair penalty. It goes from a question of guilt or innocence to what the penalty will be.

HBO

Do you think there's a certain type of person who chooses to become a public defender?

DAWN PORTER

I do. They're kind of mistrustful of authority. They're definitely fighters. They're passionate advocates. And the really good ones have a lot of empathy. They don't judge people for the worst thing that they've ever done.

I've gone into schools and spoken to junior high classes. I always ask them, "Who here has done something their ashamed of?" When they raise their hands, I ask, "What if that's all anyone ever knew of you?" The kids get it. Most people have probably done something illegal. If you're poor and arrested for that, it can ruin your life. If they were doing drug sweeps at Harvard, they might find some marijuana; but they're doing them in poor neighborhoods and charging people with minimum mandatory sentences.

HBO

Are public defenders bothered by the public perception of their reputation?

DAWN PORTER

How could they not be? They make jokes about it too. They told me all the names - "public pretender," "prison deliverer." But they realize very quickly that there isn't a lot of sympathy in the general public for what they do, so they don't talk about it much. Imagine thinking you had a great day getting someone acquitted, and someone tells you, "Oh, you got someone off on a technicality." I'm sorry, but the Constitution is not a technicality.

Travis Williams

HBO

At one point Travis tries to "trick" the D.A. at trial. What is their relationship like with the prosecution? They must see each other quite often.

DAWN PORTER

It's like the old cartoon where the sheepdog and the wolf show up at work and greet each other, then go about their business of beating each other up - not that I think prosecutors are wolves. In Georgia the lawyers are assigned to a courtroom, so they know each other very well. In the best of relationships, I'd say it's one of mutual respect. It can get heated, but it should. The stakes are high.

HBO

Were you able to film in any courtroom you wanted?

DAWN PORTER

Not all courtrooms are open to the public. And even if they are open, you still need the judge's permission. For Travis's court, I filed a motion and had to argue it in front of the judge. That was one of the good things about being a lawyer. The judge ruled that it was good that people see what happens in the legal system. I had parameters whenever I filmed; I couldn't show the jury. In one case, there was a police informant I wasn't allowed to film.

HBO

Did you look for anything in particular in the cases you found?

DAWN PORTER

The biggest thing is finding a case that actually goes through to trial. Less than five percent actually do. We got a little bit of luck in that the families in both cases were willing to talk to us. Too often we just see people as criminals, and not as a part of a family that's going to be deeply disrupted by their conviction.

HBO

You've highlighted a major problem in the system, but what can be done to fix it?

DAWN PORTER

It's important to train young lawyers and have programs like Gideon's Promise which teaches them not only to be good at their jobs, but caring and ethical people. Also, our drug sentences are completely out of whack. Louisiana has minimum mandatory laws for having marijuana. How is that making me safe?

Gideon's Army

Monday, July 1 at 9 PM

Docs Summer Series 2013