A Fall from Truth: A critique of overused images of the “Incompetent” Public Defender

These past weeks, Al Gore’s internet has been buzzing about the newest Netflix release, “A Fall from Grace” written by Chittlin Circuit extraordinaire, Tyler Perry.  The movie follows Grace Waters, a church-going, 40-something, divorcee who finds new love with a young, bohemian-adjacent artist, Shannon.  Their steamy romance quickly ends when Grace finds out that her P.Y.T. embezzled all of her money and mortgaged her house.  This deception drove Grace to beat Shannon mercilessly with a baseball bat until he is dead (presumably). The following scenes chronical Grace’s murder trial and her cliché relationship with her, you guessed it, Public Defender. Enter Jasmine Bryant- a misdemeanor attorney who has never taken a case to trial. She is hand-selected by her manager to represent Grace because he wants Jasmine to quickly resolve the case to avoid the media circus. “Quickly resolve the case” is code for ignore the evidence and muscle the client into accepting a life sentence. The scene cuts to Jasmine going to the jail to go over the plea form and we see Jasmine trying to gain Grace’s trust, but Grace is clearly cagey. This ironic dance of fiduciary on the party of the Public Defender and mistrust on the part of the client is nothing new, but it is not the only story. There are clients who receive legal services from the Public Defender’s Office who are beyond grateful and who are open from the initial interview. When we see contentious relationships between the Public Defender and client on television and that that go unchecked, it sends a message that this is the way people are supposed to treat Public Defenders.
       While social media criticized the movie because of its lack of continuity, the terrible wigs, and the confusing storyline, I couldn’t help but wonder why Perry chose to perpetuate the notion that Public Defenders are on the same team as Prosecutors.  It came as no surprise that Jasmine is married to a rookie cop who was investigating the same theft ring that was linked to Shannon’s “murder.”  Talk about being in bed with the State! This Hollywood crafted, conflict of interest preserves the assumption that Public Defenders moonlight as Prosecutors. In the end, their marital relationship didn’t affect the murder case, but the appearance of impropriety made my skin crawl.  With messages like this, it’s no wonder why people assume that Public Defenders are in the State Attorney’s back pocket.

I saw a meme the other day that said, “If your Public Defender wears these [cheap, worn out] shoes, you’re going to jail.” This meme reminded me of Rory Garruax (top). His disheveled, slovenly appearance suggested that he is overworked, frazzled, and will devote the bare minimum to a case. His ill-fitting suit and unkempt hair is a subtle nod to the level of defense that a client will receive. Garruax’s wardrobe sends the message that Public Defenders in general don’t care -that their messy attire mirrors the level effort they are willing to put in a case. This we know is far from the truth. Public Defenders are hardworking, creative, and dedicated. Public Defenders are “warriors to those in desperate need of a champion”, but will Hollywood ever get tired of using the incompetent Public Defender trope?