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This year marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court decision: Gideon v. Wainwright. In that decision, the justices ruled unanimously that defendants in criminal cases deserved legal representation in state courts. And if they were too poor, the court said, the state must provide counsel. These days, we call those lawyers public defenders. A new documentary calls them "Gideon's Army" and follows three public defenders - all African-American working in the deep South. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji has this report.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: So, there's a scene in "Gideon's Army" where Congressman John Lewis from Georgia is giving a pep-talk to a group of young public defenders from the South.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: You know, I got arrested a few times. I went to jail 40 times during the '60s.

MERAJI: Congressman Lewis is a civil rights hero. He organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and was a Freedom Rider.

LEWIS: And if it hadn't been for the lawyers during that period, I don't know where we will be as a nation and as a people.

MERAJI: "Gideon's Army" takes us into the world of three lawyers who represent poor people accused of committing crimes. All three are juggling 100-plus cases, working long hours for little pay. And props from civil rights leaders - don't count on them, says Travis Williams.

TRAVIS WILLIAMS: Figure out a way to cope. Grow up. If you want to make more money get a different job. If you don't want to take on 100 people and fight for them with everything you got, get a different job.

MERAJI: Williams is one of the public defenders in "Gideon's Army." He works in Hall County, Georgia and he's the first lawyer we meet.

WILLIAMS: That's the beauty of this system. It's set up to give people the presumption of innocence.

MERAJI: He's in the courtroom giving an impassioned closing argument on behalf of his client, Jacquise Welchell, accused of attempted false imprisonment and battery.

WILLIAMS: There are huge consequences. This boy will become a convicted felon. That's the reality of it, that's what this case represents.

MERAJI: Jacquise Welchell was found not guilty. Williams frames wins like that and puts them on a wall. Losses he tattoos on his back - eight client's names so far. He says as long as he's a lawyer, he'll be a public defender.

WILLIAMS: As I was growing up just having encounters with the police where I felt like they weren't going to treat me fairly or treating people in the neighborhood fairly, I knew I wanted to be somebody that could prevent that from happening.

MERAJI: That said, Travis Williams doesn't think criminal courts disenfranchise people based on race. He says the system is hard to navigate if you're poor. He says most of his clients are poor and white.

WILLIAMS: I've been poor and black, so I know that's not an attractive place to be. But I think that it's really a socio-economic thing.

MERAJI: Often bail bonds are more than Williams clients can afford. So, they stay locked up awaiting trial for weeks or months. And a majority of the time a guilty plea is the best way to stop long pre-trial detentions or to reduce a client's sentence.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How do you wish to plead to these charges not guilty or guilty?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Guilty.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How do you wish to plea to these charges? Not guilty or guilty?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Guilty.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Not guilty or guilty?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Guilty.

DAWN PORTER: My goal with this film was to do something different. It was really to focus very intently on the experience of the lawyer.

MERAJI: Dawn Porter directed "Gideon's Army." She says the three main characters in her film represent three types of public defenders. The Warrior:

PORTER: Like Travis. They like to fight. They are purists. You defend anybody, bring it, I don't care what the case is, I don't care what the circumstance is.

MERAJI: The Pragmatist. That's June Hardwick, doing the best she can with little resources.

JUNE HARDWICK: But I have to do my job and the state, they need to do their job.

MERAJI: And The Empathizer: Brandy Alexander. You watch her struggle with the fact that being a public defender means representing an admitted child rapist and a 17-year-old named Demontes Wright. He's charged with armed robbery.

BRANDY ALEXANDER: And win lose or draw, tears will fall, because this kid is, I don't think he's guilty. I don't. I think he's innocent.

MERAJI: Porter said she's challenging her audience to see the criminal justice system from the perspective of the accused.

PORTER: People who might have walked across the street from Demontes if they saw him walking towards them on a dark night and all they saw was a black kid. When they're watching Demontes in the movie, they're cheering for him. And that gives me a lot of hope.

MERAJI: Dawn Porter says she believes there's a two-tiered criminal justice system. One for haves and one for have-nots. She says that's the civil rights issue of our time and she's doesn't think enough people are talking about it. Porter says her documentary film, "Gideon's Army," is one attempt to change that. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

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WERTHEIMER: Shereen Marisol Meraji reports for NPR's Code Switch team, which covers race, ethnicity and culture. "Gideon's Army" airs tomorrow on HBO.

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