The filmmaker set up his tripod outside a South Bronx public housing complex on a recent morning, recording traffic rumbling past aging buildings, playgrounds, older people greeting one another in Caribbean-accented Spanish and a growing line at a church food pantry.
A man walking by inquired about the purpose of the shoot.
“To get a person out of jail,” said Nicole Mull, a Legal Aid Society lawyer working with the filmmaker, David Simpson.
Ms. Mull and Mr. Simpson are at the forefront of an innovative effort to use documentary-style videos to get their clients more lenient treatment from prosecutors and judges — outcomes like shorter sentences or allowing people to be released as they await trial. Some are submitted as part of plea-bargain negotiations, in the hope of reducing a felony to a misdemeanor or to even get a case dismissed.
Such videos tend to be employed by wealthier defendants in federal cases. The production quality and cost vary widely, but a high-end video can easily cost more than $10,000 — perhaps significantly more.
Now Legal Aid and a criminal defense clinic at Fordham University School of Law are trying to create videos for the defendants they represent: people in state court who cannot afford to hire lawyers, let alone video teams. They say that of the 23 videos they have submitted to the courts so far, 16 have helped draw what they see as favorable outcomes compared with initial offers from prosecutors. They expect to submit six more this month.
“We’re trying to bring marginalized clients something that wealthier defendants who are facing charges are able to avail themselves of,” said Cheryl Bader, the Fordham Law professor who runs the clinic. “It’s a novel way of trying to advocate for clients.”
Mitigation videos, as they are known, often include interviews with the defendant, their family and friends, as well as social workers and psychologists. They can be more than 20 minutes long; Legal Aid makes a point of including context about the defendants’ life stories and the places they come from.
At Fordham, the students formed three teams, and each worked with a defendant on a video during the spring semester. Much of the time was spent on research to build a strong argument and planning on-camera interviews. The clinic is also open to social work and forensic psychology students who plan to work in the legal field. Students from the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia University have contributed research and data visualizations, while editing and postproduction are handled by the Legal Aid team.
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