Gideon’s Army: Tattoos In Law

By Marisa Kakoulas

When my tattoo world and legal world collide, in some very powerful ways, I want to share it with you.

I attended NYU Law School’s screening of Gideon’s Army, a film that takes a tough look at the American criminal justice system through the lives of three young public defenders in the the South who struggle with an overwhelming case load, long hours, and very low pay in order to ensure that those who are poor and cannot afford a lawyer in a criminal trial have the right to representation — a right guaranteed by the 6th Amendment of the US Constitution and the 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the Supreme Court ruled that defendants in criminal cases have the right to legal representation in state courts, and if they cannot afford a lawyer, the state would have provide one. Public defenders are such lawyers.

Gideon’s Army, brilliantly directed by Dawn Porter, is not a documentary where tattoos play heavily. This film, at its core, is about how some of the greatest civil rights abuses lie in a broken criminal justice system, as noted by Jonathan Rapping, who heads the Southern Public Defender Training Center, now known as Gideon’s Promise.

However, one of the most powerful moments in the film comes in the form of tattoos. As seen in the short clip below (which is not all entirely in the film), Travis Williams, a public defender in Hall County, Georgia, calls himself and other public defenders who fight for the constitution a “True Believer” — words he has tattooed on his back. Along with that tattoo are the names of the clients whose cases he has lost: 8 at the time of this film (which was filmed over 3 years). Travis had won 24 jury trials. Travis says that he wears the names of those clients who have gone to jail as a constant reminder to be vigilant when defending the accused because a person’s freedom is in his hands. And when he loses, another client’s name goes on his back, so that he always carries that weight.

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