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Hall defender in the spotlight

Williams featured in film to be aired on HBO this summer

POSTED: March 31, 2013 12:13 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Hall County senior public defender Travis Williams stays busy at his desk Friday in the Public Defenders Office. Williams is featured in an HBO documentary, "Gideon's Army," that will premiere in July.

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Travis Williams, Hall County’s senior public defender, has made a name for himself from one his birth mother pulled out of thin air.

“When I was born, my mother had escaped from custody,” he said. “She was in jail, or prison, here in Georgia, and had escaped from custody. She took on an alias name and gave birth to a child in that alias name. My last name was supposed to be something else. Who knows what? Williams was a fictional name she used to avoid arrest.”

The name now is well known in the Hall County legal system where Williams has a reputation as a fighter. As a featured subject in an HBO documentary with a national publicity tour well under way, his persona has spread beyond the county lockup.

“Every time I do an interview for a different state or different radio station, I start getting letters from all over the county,” he said. “I try to respond to each letter, but it’s very difficult. I try to respond on Saturdays, but I get more mail than I can really handle.”

“Gideon’s Army” premieres in July on HBO. It was featured at the Sundance Film Festival and is opening the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on April 4 in Durham, N.C.

Director Dawn Porter, a former attorney, made the film to highlight pervasive social inequalities in the justice system, particularly the South.

Asked if he think the film will drive social change, Williams is skeptical.

“That’s what the director and other people think it could do,” he said. “I’m not sure if it can, because how much can a film do?”

Not that Williams is a cynic. Far from it.

“Injustice is such a silent thing that happens, and it’s behind closed doors most of the time. People don’t see it because they’re not faced with it. It doesn’t hit home with them that things are going on that are bad, or how important a role jurors are,” he said. “I don’t think most people would ignore injustice if was right in their face, because I think most people are good-hearted and want to do the right thing.”

Through a combination of experience and skill, Williams, 30, was made a senior attorney in the Hall County Public Defender’s Office office two years ago, taking on the most serious felony cases. He has tried 24 cases and lost only eight.

One high profile case was the Deanna Kipp murder trial last year. Kipp, charged with felony murder for the death of her infant daughter, was found guilty in November.

Public defenders face a negative perception from the public as being both ill-intentioned and incompetent.

“I think that’s the general perception, that we’re doing this because we couldn’t get another job. And that’s not the case,” he said, noting he’s had plenty of job offers. “This is where I felt the most comfortable and felt I could do the most good.”

Experiencing the injustices of being black and poor growing up, Williams always knew he wanted to be a public defender.

“At first, as a kid, just getting harassed by the police, being stopped on the bicycle, being harassed in the neighborhood, I knew I wanted to be somebody that would stop that kind of behavior,” he said. “And so when I went to law school, I thought I would be a civil rights attorney, or something like that. But the more I learned about that kind of litigation, the more I realized that that’s not on the ground, stopping day-to-day stuff or really defending people. I discovered that public defense was probably the way to go.”

He said his upbringing, while difficult, helped ground him.

“Growing up not having much and having to fight my way up, you develop a certain center,” he said. “Never steal; I never took anything from anybody to get here. Don’t take handouts; I’d rather earn it myself. It was the journey to get here that built my ethical code, built my moral compass — just the difficulty in getting here. I appreciate the struggle because it made me the man I am today.”

More than just a theory

Through the film tour, Williams’ day-to-day life has been slightly interrupted. He’s been to some of the elite law schools in the country for screenings, including Harvard and Yale, where minds are sharp, yet slightly aloof.

“They kept it real academic, and it was weird to hear people talk ‘theory’ of everything, because in real life it’s much different. It’s definitely not theory-based,” Williams said. “It’s trying to manage your case load, trying to manage your people, your everything; trying to keep people out of prison for longer than they should be; trying to investigate cases; going out in the field; getting chased down; getting run down; getting doors slammed in your face.”

Williams’ hard work does pay off. Certificates signed by the jury foreman line his office wall facing the courthouse. His wins are in front of him, and the losses behind him — literally. Williams has the names of every trial client whose case he has lost tattooed on his back.

“Sometimes I forget the people I’ve won, but I never forget those losses,” he said. “And so it’s not to make a graveyard on my back, but just to make a history of my career, where I can look back and say, ‘Man, I remember that case.’”

Growing up in his situation, Williams said, he understands the plight his clients face and their obstacles toward success.

“Some people just don’t have that push within themselves — they need support. And they don’t have that support in the family system, and they don’t have that support in the community system, and so it’s very difficult for them to make the strides necessary for them to get themselves out of their situation,” he said.

“People look at them and say, ‘This person is lazy, that’s why they’re in their situation, they’ve got no drive,’ But some people need community and family support, and their family their community is incapable of giving it to them.”

None of the other featured attorneys in “Gideon” continue to practice as public defenders, Williams said, and it’s not hard to understand why. “The pay isn’t great. It is very stressful,” he noted.

So what keeps Williams going?

“The fight,” he answered, not missing a beat. “I think it’s pretty cool that the government pays me to fight it. ... The government gives me money so that I can sustain myself and continue to work and fight it. I think that’s a pretty cool thing, to hold everybody in the system accountable.”

Williams hasn’t allowed the grind to exhaust him.

“I still get excited about cases,” he said. “Certain things still shock me. I still get outraged by crazy things, but outrage is tempered down a bit because you just learn how to deal with it. But I still feel the same excitement when I get a good case.

In a realm where so few cases see a jury ­— more than 95 percent of cases end in a plea deal, he said — one of the most invigorating aspects is arguing before a jury, Williams said.

“I try to appeal to people’s moral code. I make a lot of moral and ethical arguments and equitable arguments and try to get people to see things in a fair sort of way,” he said. “I think that’s the best way to communicate with jurors because the law, in a lot of ways, is real convoluted and complex and means nothing to the average person,”

“This is the only time in the average person’s life where they’ll apply the law to fact. Like I said, I think the average person wants to do the right thing. It’s just helping them to see the right thing.”

Show business in future?

Williams was discovered by the director at a Gideon’s Promise meeting for public defenders a few years ago in Birmingham. Porter took interview footage of Williams to HBO, which bought the rights to the film. But he still wasn’t interested in being a part of it.

“She chased me down for a year and half, almost two years, before I agreed to do it,” he said. “The only reason why I agreed to do it is I saw a trailer for it, and they made this work seem so depressing, and like the worst thing to do in the world. And I was like, ‘Look, I’ll do it if you portray me as being excited about the work and who I am. So I’ll do it to add a different perspective on what the work is.’”

Now he isn’t shying from the limelight.

“I actually just signed with a talent agency a couple days ago,” he said. “They want to do a show about me, a scripted show. They’re going to pair me with a writer, pair me with a producer and a show runner and put together a pilot and try to pitch it to networks.”

Producers can purchase a person’s “life rights,” or the cooperation of a person (or others who know him or her well) to produce a biography on his or her life.

“I know nothing about Hollywood and how this stuff works. You guys want to sign me, that’s cool, you guys figure it out and I’ll just sit back and collect a check,” he said, smiling. “I want to be a producer on the show, too, and have some kind of say in the creative aspect of it, the story process.”

But Williams said he’s already earned the kind of recognition that fulfills him.

“I hope it makes people at least see that even if it’s just me, there’s one public defender out there who gives a damn,” he said. “If I’m viewed as somebody in this public defense world that can be an example of hard work and effort, than I would be more than satisfied with where I stand in my career.”

Judging from the audience feedback, that seems to have been conveyed.

“At each screening, I’ve gotten a standing ovation,” he said. “People want autographs, people want to take pictures. It’s a real freaky thing, it’s something that I never would have expected. I mean, why would you want my autograph? It’s very humbling.”

And life is about to become hectic for Williams. He’s working on two cases soon set for trial, he said.

“I do what the client wants, but I’m not one to shy away from a trial,” he said. “I’m not going to lay down and let them take my client’s liberty without a full-fledged fight. You’ve got to earn it.”



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