Travis Williams of Gainesville, Ga., one of three public defenders featured in the award-winning HBO documentary film Gideon’s Army, spoke at a convocation celebrating Constitution Day at Erskine College Thursday.
“The constitution is in and of itself an aspirational document,” Williams told his audience.
The hope and promise of the document come alive, he said, when we “force it to work.” This is what public attorneys do every day, serving indigent defendants.
Williams, who was born in Atlanta while his mother was on the run after escaping from custody, said he knew he “wanted to be someone who could help people like [my mother].”
He told stories of success and failure in the courtroom, beginning with the story that led to a landmark Supreme Court case 50 years ago.
In 1961, Clarence Gideon was charged with stealing about $5 worth of goods from a poolroom in a small town in Florida. After fighting and losing his case without the defense attorney he was unable to afford, he was sentenced to five years in prison, and began to study the law, making use of the prison library.
Convinced that he had been denied his constitutional right to an attorney, Gideon wrote a letter to the Supreme Court —on prison stationery, in pencil— arguing that it was impossible to be tried fairly without access to an attorney.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Ruling in Gideon’s favor, the Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright that the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel in criminal cases extends to felony defendants in state courts, and that it is consistent with the Constitution to require that state courts appoint attorneys for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers.
Gideon himself was given a new trial with a court-appointed attorney and was acquitted and released. Today, a high percentage of criminal defendants are represented by public defenders. Overworked and underpaid, public defenders are motivated by an intense desire for justice.
Ending his address with a call to become involved in issues of social justice, Williams expressed his hope that one day we will see the Constitution live up to its promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
He took time to answer questions from students, faculty, and staff.
Asked whether he had any tips for students bound for graduate school, Williams encouraged students to maintain a good academic record and seek internships and other opportunities for experience.
One student asked Williams whether he would ever consider becoming a judge. “I like fighting for people, I like taking a side,” he said.
Travis Williams hopes to continue his work as a public defender, upholding the constitution and seeking justice for those who otherwise would not receive it.