By Jan Pudlow
Brandy Alexander piles coins in her lap, and counts out $3 to put gas in her car.
“This is all the money I have in the world right now,” she says with a grimace, hoping it buys enough gas to get her home, back to work at the public defender’s office, and home again — because she doesn’t get paid until Friday.
Rifling through her mail, Alexander throws most of the envelopes unopened into the back seat of her car, saying they are too depressing to look at now: notices of overdue student loan bills she can’t afford to pay and an overdrawn check notice from Bank of America.
For three and a half years, Alexander — a graduate of the University of Florida College of Law, a former assistant public defender in the juvenile division of the Second Circuit Public Defender’s Office in Tallahassee, and now a 31-year-old assistant public defender in Naples — allowed the cameras to follow her as she worked in the trenches representing indigent clients charged with felonies at the public defender’s office near Atlanta from April 2009 through October 2012.
The result is “Gideon’s Army,” a gripping inside look at the criminal justice system from the perspective of three young public defenders in the South. The winner of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival’s editing award for a U.S. documentary, as well as winning both the Knight Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award (non-fiction) at the 2013 Miami International Film Festival, “Gideon’s Army” debuted on HBO in July and will soon be available on Netflix and DVD.
Corporate lawyer Dawn Porter, who directed and produced “Gideon’s Army,” was asked about common misconceptions about public defenders.
“Many joke that their clients call them ‘public pretenders.’ The biggest misconceptions are that they could not get any other job, that they are lazy and don’t care about their clients, and that they are not skilled. The public defenders in ‘Gideon’s Army’ are the opposite of those stereotypes in every way. I would proudly and confidently have any one of them represent me or someone I loved,” Porter said.
While idealistic and dedicated, Alexander reveals there is nothing easy about being a public defender, as she struggled to keep up with 120 cases of clients charged with serious felonies. (Her caseload in Naples, she said, is less than that, but still too high.)
In the movie, she is preparing for trial for a 17-year-old high school athlete charged with aggravated assault and armed robbery and facing a 10-year minimum mandatory sentence
“Win, lose, or draw, tears will fall. I think he’s innocent,” Alexander says.
Just before trial in Clayton County, Georgia, Alexander says: “This case will haunt me if we lose. He’s a kid. . . . if he’s found guilty, it will break him.”
In her closing arguments, she makes a big deal that her client wears orthodontic braces and has visible tattoos on his neck. The pizza store owner who was robbed said her client was a customer at the shop three or four times a week over two years. Yet, the employees of the pizza store never described the armed robber as having braces or tattoos.
That, Alexander argues, is reasonable doubt. And the jury agreed, finding her client not guilty. The camera zooms in as Alexander wipes away tears of joy, hugging her client and his mother in the courthouse hallway.
But, later in the film, Alexander sheds tears of anguish, telling about her hair falling out from stress and anxiety attacks.
“I collapsed in court last week,” she says. “My knees gave out, and the prosecutor had to catch me.”
One of her clients charged with murder, she explains, “was apparently planning my murder,” if they lost at his trial, threatening to “do it up big and take down a lawyer in open court.”
Alexander is scared and furious, as she says, “I worked my ass off for him,” taking his calls in the middle of the night when he had no one else to talk to.
“And you’re planning my murder?” Alexander asks incredulous, wiping away tears.
“It’s part of the job. That’s what I’m told. I don’t think it’s part of the job.”
She gets strength from camaraderie at the Southern Public Defender Training Center and a glowing moment of congratulations from U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who has been an integral player in the civil rights movement since the 1960s.
But after her collapse, Alexander took a year off.
“I told myself I wasn’t going to go back to public defender work. I had my fill,” Alexander told the News. She put out a lot of job applications at Florida law firms and state organizations, and even with her wealth of criminal defense experience, she said she was surprised that “no one responded.”
Trusting in a “higher power,” Alexander took the job at the 20th Circuit Public Defender’s Office in Naples.
“I missed it a lot. I am a litigator. I like being in the courtroom. I love the atmosphere of the public defender’s office, where I can go to my colleague in the next office and ask a question. I missed my clients as well,” Alexander said. “The only thing that made sense to me is God doesn’t want me anywhere but in the public defender’s office.
“The pay is terrible, the hours are long, and the stress is high. But sometimes, you feel like you made a difference. Today is not that day, but tomorrow may be. I do the best I can on any given day and pray that is enough.”
She admits she still lives paycheck to paycheck, but there is joy when she finally goes home at the end of another long day. She has a nine-month-old baby named Cadence Carey. Fitting for the daughter of a soldier in Gideon’s Army, Alexander chose this for her baby’s middle name: Miranda.
For more information about “Gideon’s Army,” go to http://gideonsarmythefilm.com.