Lam Choi, a Cambodian refugee raised by an aunt and uncle in the Tenderloin, was 17 when he was charged with killing a local gang leader; he’s facing life in prison. His ambitious and savvy public defender, Jeff Adachi, has spent four years preparing the case but has about 10 minutes to discuss a last-minute plea deal with his client, who in turn must decide how much of his adulthood to gamble. Adachi, whose family was interned during World War II, hates a system that poses such choices, but also knows that if he doesn’t participate in it, people like Lam won’t stand a chance. Meanwhile, Brian Robinson, an African American, is charged with “appearing to be under the influence of drugs” on a street corner at 7:45 a.m. (who wouldn’t?), and has to beat it to avoid a mandatory max under California’s third-strike law. His assigned lawyer, the white, middle-class daughter of conservative Republicans, has lost all five of her previous trials and needs a win to save her self-confidence.
The great strength of Pamela Yates and Peter Kinoy’s measured and engrossing doc Presumed Guilty (through July 16 at the Pioneer), seen last month at the Human Rights Watch fest, is that it keeps all this drama in perspective. Sure, the overworked and underpaid public defenders have tough jobs (I work for Legal Aid, New York City’s PD), but when their caseloads are unmanageable and their principles are compromised and the D.A.’s holding all the high cards (including the judge), it’s really the defendants, mostly poor and people of color, who get screwed. If you measure by length of sentence imposed, my favorite law prof told us, the worst crime you can commit in this country is asking for a jury trial instead of taking the last offered plea bargain.
As in most court TV (the film is produced by KQED), the action is faster paced than in reality, and the graphics are cheesy. But the lawyers are far more compelling than David E. Kelley’s—Will Maas, a recovering alcoholic vet and midnight video diarist, attributes his masterful courtroom manner to his oversized specs, and investigator Nigel Phillips was the drummer in the freaking Alarm—and their clients’ stories are apt illustrations of a justice system that has failed.