Guilty Until Proven Innocent? Stories of the Failing Public Defense System in the U.S.

N-Map is excited to be working on a new short film for The Constitution Project about the public defense system in the United States. The film will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gideon v Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established the right to counsel as a constitutional right. Though the decision guaranteed a right to counsel for those who could not afford a lawyer, it did not set out any clear mandate for how states should guarantee that right. Now, 50 years later, the U.S. public defense system is failing, contributing to an unjust justice system, overcrowded prisons, and wrongful convictions.

N-Map recently travelled to Georgia for the project, where we filmed arraignments, criminal hearings, and interviews with attorneys and former indigent defendants.  The three former defendants we interviewed gave powerful testimonies about the failings of the under-funded and over-burdened public defense system. Hearing their stories of injustice, hardship, and ultimately, of courage and perseverance, was incredibly moving and made clear the need for reform of a broken justice system.

One of the most moving interviews was with Maurice, a young African-American man from a small town in Georgia. Maurice shared his story of being arrested for possession of cocaine, although no cocaine was ever found on him. The police made the arrest based on a statement from a confidential informant, who later admitted that she’d lied in exchange for $40. Maurice was facing 20 years to life in prison for the alleged possession of half a gram of cocaine—a half gram that he didn’t have.

Preparing for the interview with Maurice in Ben Hill, Georgia.
The N-Map team preparing to interview Maurice.

Maurice’s public defender refused to file motions, so he wrote his own.  The lawyer also repeatedly encouraged Maurice to take a plea deal, but he maintained his innocence, despite the threat of a severe sentence.  Maurice said that as an American citizen he felt he had a right to a good lawyer, but described, “once you’re in the system, you’re not a complete citizen. You’re an alien of the system. You’re an alien to the country.” Having experienced the criminal justice system, Maurice doesn’t buy the presumption of innocence or believe that an accused individual can rely on the public defense system.  “It’s your obligation, the individual that’s incarcerated, to fight for your right. I don’t believe you’re innocent until proven guilty. I believe you’re guilty until proven innocent,” he said.

Maurice spent 15 month in jail awaiting his trial. At Maurice’s request, he was eventually assigned a new public defender—three days before trial.  The new lawyer didn’t know anything about his case or have time to prepare. In a stroke of luck, Maurice was found not guilty after the confidential informant revealed that she’d lied.  Maurice is now free, but things could have turned out very differently for him if he hadn’t fought for himself.

Across many states and counties in the U.S., public defender systems operate like a machine, spitting out plea deals to compensate for a lack of funding and manpower. Thousands of indigent defendants across the United States are being failed by this system, facing unnecessarily harsh sentences and wrongful convictions.  It is time for the U.S. justice system to make good on the promise of the Gideon v. Wainright decision.

N-Map is thrilled to have the opportunity to work on this issue. Many of the lawyers we met with described the struggle in indigent defense as the new civil rights movement, and we are excited to be part of that movement. Stay tuned for the video (to be released in March) and to find out how you can help reform an unjust justice system!

For more N-Map videos on criminal justice, see our video Fighting Prosecutorial Misconduct.


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