The opening of Law and Order—which aired on NBC for many years—featured some of the most familiar lines in network television history:
In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.
"What? That's not true. How about the defense?" asked Dawn Porter at Friday afternoon's City Club of Boise event at the Grove Hotel. "It's a TV thing, but it's a big thing when you think of how many people get their information from TV."
Porter knows a thing or two about TV, having worked for both the ABC and A&E networks. Porter is also a former attorney and a current filmmaker. She was in Boise to talk about her most recent effort, Gideon's Army, a documentary that will air later this year on HBO and had a big-screen showcase Friday evening at Boise's Egyptian Theatre.
Porter was joined by Sara Thomas, director of the Idaho State Appellate Defender's Office, to talk about one of the most basic freedoms of all Americans: the right to an appropriate defense. The conversation was in sync with 2013 being the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that guarantees a free public defense for members of the public who can't afford an attorney.
Boise Weekly recently chronicled the Gideon case [BW, News, "And Justice For All?" March 20, 2013] and reported that Idaho was rife with inconsistency, at best, and probable civil-liberties violations, at worst, in complying with the constitutional requirement.
Thomas told Friday's gathering that there was a dramatic lack of uniformity among Idaho's counties in determining who should be granted counsel.
"Even definining 'indigency' is inconsistent among our judges," said Thomas. "The caseload standards among public defenders is wildly different. And huge caseloads are, in some case, preventing proper investigations for the defense."
Porter said it took her three-and-a-half years to film Gideon's Army. In one of the film's scenes, a young attorney stretches his arms out in his office, pointing to a handful of framed documents hung up on the wall. Each of the documents represents a "not guilty" verdict handed down for one of his indigent clients.
"My goal is to fill this wall up," he says. "My other goal is to have the names of people who have been found guilty to be tattooed on my back."