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With: Jeff Adachi, Michele Forrar, Will Maas, Phoenix Streets, Stephen Rosen, Nigel Phillips
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Pamela Yates
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 115
Date: 03/18/2013

Presumed Guilty: Tales of the Public Defenders (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Down by Law

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Presumed Guilty on DVD

We know from watching movies that when you're arrested, you certainly don't want a court-appointed lawyer defending you. You're always better off with a high-priced attorney (hopefully played by some very good-looking actor or actress) who will work for you for free because they believe in your case with all their heart and soul.

But this new documentary, Presumed Guilty: Tales of the Public Defenders, which opens today at the Roxie for a week's run, sheds a little light on the truth. San Francisco's public defenders are not only hard working and charismatic, but they, too, believe in people's cases with all their hearts and souls.

Filmmakers Pamela Yates and Peter Kinoy apparently searched the country for the finest example of a public defense system and settled on San Francisco. They worked for three years to cobble together the dramatic tales featured in Presumed Guilty, but my guess is that they could have chosen any other three years and any other collection of stories and come out just as well as they do here.

To start, we meet the energetic up-and-coming attorney Phoenix Streets (who could be played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), who routinely gets assigned to misdemeanor cases like Erna Larusdottir, who was caught sitting on City Hall steps with a concealed gun in her bag.

We also meet Michele Forrar, a lanky newcomer who has lost all of her first five cases and steps into the ring for number six: defending Brian Robinson, who was arrested for appearing to be under the influence of drugs.

The bigger cases are handled by more veteran public defenders like Jeff Adachi. According to the film, the other lawyers worship Adachi and he always seems to be on hand to offer a hearty handshake and a congratulations when one of the 84 attorneys working under him wins a case.

The film even manages to catch a bit of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans when Adachi announces that he's running for Public Defender to replace his suddenly-retired boss. We see the press conference in which Mayor Willie Brown chooses his longtime friend Kimiko Burton for the post. Burton immediately turns around and fires Adachi for seemingly no other reason than to eliminate the competition. (Adachi recently defeated Burton and rightfully won the post.)

Despite this, we see Adachi working like a dog to help build a case for Lam Choi, who killed a Chinese gang leader. Adachi even works up an analogy likening Lam Choi to a man who has been tossed into a snake pit and must kill the leader of the snakes to survive.

The most compelling character, however, might just be Will Maas, who allowed the filmmakers to use his personal video diaries for the film. Mass works for years to defend a man named Marcos Ranjel, accused of murdering the hairdresser Carmel Sanger (this was known as the "Pink Tarantula" murder case). Maas harasses the cops who questioned his client, then tells us Vietnam stories in the middle of the night to his video diary. He even has "magic glasses" that he believes enable him to see inside a person's soul.

Presumed Guilty probably could have probed even deeper, looking into the muck and mire behind the scenes. (These folks seem peculiarly squeaky-clean.) But what Yates and Kinoy have come up with is still more than engaging. Like any good documentary, it captures more drama than a Hollywood courtroom flick and throws truth and light on a subject that most folks might take for granted.

The filmmakers and the public defenders themselves are scheduled to appear at the Roxie opening night. Don't miss this sure-to-be-legendary event.

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