Gideon’s Army: A Movie Screening and Discussion on Race in the Justice System

Kirin Gupta ’16 & Irfan Mahmud ’15

On the evening of November 18, the Harvard Foundation, in partnership with the Winthrop House Race Relations Tutors and Harvard Foundation Associate, Elaine Cheng ’15, hosted a screening of Gideon’s Army and a post-screening discussion on the American criminal justice system with Winthrop House Master and HLS Professor, Ron Sullivan.

The event was the second in a series of discussions and other programming geared towards examining the issues surrounding race in the justice system, following a panel discussion in Cabot House on the Trayvon Martin case. Gideon’s Army itself is a documentary highlighting the lives of public defenders in the South and the heavy caseloads, strenuous and long hours in the office, and low wages they face. The title of the movie, “Gideon’s Army,” is in reference to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright to establish the right to legal counsel. In turn, the “Army” is a reference to the 15,,000 public defenders who represent many of the 12 million people arrested each year.

Following the screening, which took place in the Winthrop House Junior Common Room, Winthrop Race Relations Tutor, Carl Miller moderated a discussion with House Master Ron Sullivan  about his experience as a public defender in Washington, D.C.

This open discussion in an informal question and answer format explored many of the issues prevalent in the movie. Professor Sullivan spoke about issues ranging from the prominent role race plays in conviction rates, to the lack of charge limits and its effects on plea bargaining, to the current event of George Zimmerman being arrested again. In addition to addressing these issues, he discussed the rewarding aspects of a career of a public defender and the transition from law school.

The event was a great platform for students to learn about deeper issues in the justice system. Building off the discuss of race with the Trayvon Martin case in Cabot House, this screening and discussion allowed attendees to approach different issues that affect people of color in the American justice system.