Much thanks to South Carolina public defender and Gideon’s Promise member Shane Goranson, who wrote a nice reflection on his experience doing a social biography video after we gave a workshop on how to make them at Gideon’s Promise convening in Atlanta last year. Check it out!
Jim* had clearly been through a lot in his life. He suffered with a terrible substance abuse problem. But he had put in a lot of work on himself since he crashed into another car while being chased by a state trooper. I knew Jim had a lot of good in him. I knew he was helping a lot of people, but I didn’t know how to step up the presentation of mitigation in court in a way that would really do his work justice and have a real impact on his punishment. While I represented Jim I was lucky enough to go to a Gideon’s Promise training where Raj Jayadev made a presentation on client videos and their potential impact. I knew that would be the way to help Jim. Raj emphasized that it didn’t need to be flashy or expensive, it just needed to be sincere story.
Thinking through the story, the presentation, and the content we wanted for the video was invigorating and enlightening. I learned more about Jim, I gained respect and admiration for him. The people we interviewed, the most important people in Jim’s life, grew to know us and respect us. They made comments about how surprised they were about what we, a public defender and very generous videographer, were doing. Jim knew we left no stone unturned in trying to get him the best possible resolution and they worked hard to help us. In the end we put it all out there and did the best we could and that leaves a certain satisfaction even if the result was a little disappointing. I learned a lot while making the video and representing my client in a new, creative way let me see my job a little bit differently too. It put public defenders in a different light too, in this case a lawyer who could produce mitigation up to par with any private attorney. Highly recommended.
(Shane Goranson is a Public Defender in Greenwood South Carolina)
(To see more on social biography videos, click here.)
We decided to start sharing the one ceremony we have at ACJP — when a loved one comes home from prison or jail due to the advocacy of their family, and they erase their name from our weekly meeting board. To the outside viewer passing by our building and looking through our window, it may not look like much. Just some person erasing their name while others watch, clap, and cry. But for the families in the meeting, the ceremony is profoundly meaningful. It symbolizes the power of how family and community can challenge and beat the institutions of mass incarceration. Every weekly meeting, when families come to advocate for their loved ones, we write their loved one’s name on the white board, and then the groups shares updates and strategies as we go through the list of names. A number of people listed on the board had never set foot in a meeting until the day they come home. They have been detained while their family has come to these meetings every week. Robert was one of those community members — a name on the board that the rest of the group only knew through his mother’s stories, but they prayed for his release nonetheless. This short video is of the day he erased his name, at the first meeting of 2015. [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24-IdhhMA9w&w=650&h=450]
Lamar Noble, wrongfully arrested for a resisting arrest charge, addresses the crowd at the start of the Protect Your People March.
Like many cities across the country, San Jose starts 2015 on the heels of a march and rally that echoed the national call for police accountability. We belted chants and held up signs with the names of Mike Brown and Eric Garner.
But calling this event an act of solidarity is not quite accurate. Rather, the march was an act of “familiarity” and a morbid binding of reality that we, too, can speak the names of the deceased who once walked our streets, went to our schools, attended our churches and whose lives were unjustly cut short by a bullet fired from an officer’s gun.
While our event – the “Protect Your People March” – ended at the police department as others across the country have, we started at the district attorney’s office. We made it a point to march within earshot of the windows of our county jail because police are not isolated agents of the state. Rather, they are part of a “criminal justice system” that includes prosecutors, jails, judges and courts.
We picked our march route to make a physical connection showing how the same system that time and again refuses to hold officers accountable for the killing of innocents, is the same one that incarcerates more than 2 million Americans. People of color are disproportionately represented in that number.
The same injustice that allowed the officers who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner to not be prosecuted, is the same bias that is being used to over prosecute communities of color at a dizzying clip. It is why our march focused on two words that will hopefully become part of this movement’s lexicon moving forward – prosecutorial discretion. Continue reading
This week, Mark Becker, the Supervisor at the Santa Clara County Alternative Defender’s Office, met with our ACJP organizers and families to share the latest powerpoint presentation DA’s are using to scare juries into guilty verdicts. The powerpoint would have been comical, had it not been that a countless amount of people in Santa Clara County have been denied a fair trial as a result of this propoganda. And yes, that is seriously a photo of Al Pacino from the movie Scarface and an image of Tupac that is shared in the slideshow developed by the San Jose Police Department and presented as researched explanations as to what gangs are. Mr. Becker came by to share with us what DA’s are using in trial so we have a clear idea what we are up against, and perhaps to develop more honest tools that can created to refute the characterization of people facing gang charges. The powerpoint depicted only the most sensational of images — photos of people pointing guns at the camera, piles of drugs and money, and constant barrages of weapons like swords. The presentation is aimed at frightening juries so they can not possibly look at someone has been called a gang member by the DA as a human being. Even the language used in the powerpoint was designed to imply people who have been labeled as gang-related are only predators. One description (it is presented as if an anthropological study) says that gang members are so concerned with “notoriety” that ,”Like a dog they mark their territory.” The ACJP camp have been able to offer of gang experts from the community that can be used by defense attorneys to refute the DA’s case, but we will be brainstorming on media supplements that can be used as well by the defense bar.
Charisse capturing our subjects mother as she relived the moment when her son bought her this home.
We traveled to New York in September of 2014 to do a social biography video for man who had already plead, and was facing 10 years in prison. We were profoundly moved by how the single father took care of his ailing mother and sister, as well as always being the lending hand to friends and the community. His story reminded us again how there never is a sentence just for the “defendant”, but rather that all the time of incarceration is shared time. Indeed, though the sentencing guidelines read 10 years, the family said it very well could have been a death sentence for the mother, who has cancer and relies on her son for all assistance and care. Our video showed the home life, the deeply family oriented lifestyle of the individual, testimonies from family, friends, and therapists. They shared anecdotes while showing pictures, reliving moments, and while also showing how injurious a long sentence would be, articulated how they will be there to ensure a successful life at home if prison was taken off the table. And the best holiday call we received was on the last Friday of 2014 when his lawyer reached out, immediately after the sentencing hearing. A remarkable, and truly committed attorney, Stephen had submitted our social biography video along with a packet of other supporting material to probation and the court. He told us the amazing news he was given a short jail sentence — no prison time! He said he was certain the video was a major reason for the decision by the judge, as the court had referenced the impact of the video for his deliberation. We were honored to play a role in helping a family story be better understood by the court system. We build a unique bond with the families we do social bio vids for because the experience is so intimate — they are sharing what is most important about their lives and futures, with so much on the line. So though we recorded only for a few days, De-Bug/ACJP now has family forever in New York!
From Attorney Stephen Lewis of Stephens Baroni Reilly & Lewis in White Plains New York:
“I want to thank all at Silicon Valley De-Bug’s ACJP for the professional and effective social biographical video that I recently used in my case in the Southern District of New York. The client faced a guideline range of 91 to 120 months; the government recommended a guideline sentence, probation recommend four years and the Court imposed a sentence of six months incarceration that included 90 days of home detention. I have no doubt that the video that you produced played a determinative role in that outcome. The Court specifically referenced the video in it’s sentencing decision. Thanks for all the hard work.”
Click here for more on our social biography video model.
Our first Time Saved story of 2015! When this family came to De-Bug about 2 months ago, the judge in their 16 year old son’s case strongly considered a 6 year commitment away in juvenile prison, based on the recommendation from probation. He originally was facing a life sentence. With his amazing mom Cherisse Bergeron and attorney Monika Loya, we helped put together a mitigation packet that showed his strong local family, church, and community support and made the case for why local time was so much more crucial for his ability to bounce back from a tough life.
On Wednesday, after reviewing the social biography packet, the judge told him to look into the audience where every seat there was filled with his family and community –including his 2 little brothers. She said “Turn around.” She pointed to everyone. “That’s the reason I’m keeping you here and not sending you away.” Submission Post by Charisse Domingo (If your organization is interested in getting a workshop on how to make social biography packets, email us!)
Cherisse shows the mitigation packet for her son that demonstrates his challenges growing up, as well as his present community and future prospects. (This was taken a week before the sentencing hearing)
Day of court and ready to visit their son and brother. He will get to see and hug his 2 little brothers for the first time in almost 6 months.
His mom Cherisse proudly wears her “De-Bug The System” shirt. Her love for her son is a testimony to the power of faith in action. She herself has been through a tough few years, and being able to get through these last 6 months and being the instrumental force in her son’s case has been part of her life’s journey.
San Mateo County Juvenile Private Defender Monika Loya and Mom Cherisse Bergeron after court — they make a powerful team!