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Fellow Friday: 50 Years of Gideon

On March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court decided unanimously that states were obligated to provide counsel for defendants who couldn’t afford an attorney. The landmark decision of Gideon v. Wainwright paved the way for the creation and expansion of the public defender system across the country, reinforcing every citizen’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Fifty years later, public defender offices are understaffed, overworked, and underfunded—putting a significant strain on the indigent defense system.

2011 Class of Public Defender Corps

That’s why, two years ago, Equal Justice Works teamed up with Gideon’s Promise (formerly The Southern Public Defender Training Center) to support and train young lawyers who are true believers in justice and want to raise the standard of representation as public defenders. Public Defender Corps (PDC) is a three-year Fellowship program which includes regular training sessions and mentorship through Gideon’s Promise. Two full classes of public defenders have been launched into the field through this program.

Gideon’s Promise is featured in a new documentary, “Gideon’s Army,” which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Dawn Porter directed and produced the film after spending some time at the Gideon’s Promise training center, where PDC Fellows are also trained, and was moved by what she learned about the criminal justice system. She says that, thanks to “young lawyers I met on this journey, I can proudly say I’m a “true believer” in their cause (as public defenders).” If you attended the Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair in October, you had a chance to see an excerpt from the film which will air later this year on HBO.  Here’s a short clip as a preview. 

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, we’ll devote one Fellow Friday per month to our Fellows working in the field as public defenders, whether through Public Defender Corps or another Equal Justice Works Fellowship.2012 Class of Public Defender Corps

Next month we’ll check in with Katie Higgins, a 2011 Public Defender Corps Fellow. When Katie first started her training as a Public Defender Corps Fellow, she wrote a guest blog for us about her experience in the 2-week training session that all Public Defender Corps Fellows go through, dubbed “boot camp.” In her writing, she summarized the experience of diving head-first into a career in indigent defense: “At the end of the 15 days, we were all utterly exhausted. We had heard countless stories from students and faculty of violence, pain and death. We had in-depth discussions about slavery, racism and our nation’s criminal justice system. We brainstormed defense theories, practiced picking a jury, honed our hearsay objection skills, and wrote opening and closing statements.  We laughed together (there was a whoopee cushion incident), sang together (karaoke in Alabama!), and cried together – even the people who swore on Day 1 that they were not criers. Most importantly, we formed a community. We met faculty and other students who will be our emotional support system in the months and years to come. And we all were invigorated to go back to our offices with a renewed sense of passion and commitment to our clients, at a time when they will need nothing more than a fierce advocate with open ears, courtroom skills and a huge heart.”

Stay tuned for more!

Pictured top left: The 2011 Class of Public Defender Corps
Pictured bottom right: The 2012 Class of Public Defender Corps

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