By Leslie Brown, Department of Public Defense
At a recent sentencing of a client represented by the Department of Public Defense (DPD), the judge heard a compelling story about the father of two at the table before him – but not only from his public defender. He also watched a 20-minute video, a film that showed how much the man was loved and supported despite addictions that had led him down a troubled path.
His mother spoke about his empathy. His best friend said he’d offer him a job. His fiancée discussed how much she needed him to help raise the baby they shared and their stepson, a 7-year-old boy from a previous relationship. Even the stepson spoke, saying softly into the camera, “He takes good care of us.”
The prosecutor was seeking the highest possible sentence – seven years in prison – a sentence she said was called for because the defendant reoffended while he was out on bail earlier this year. DPD’s defense team was seeking a Drug Offense Sentencing Alternative (DOSA), three years in prison followed by three years of enhanced supervision.
Superior Court Judge John McHale expressed concern about the defendant’s offenses while his previous case was pending, calling them both sophisticated and extensive. All told, he was facing more than a dozen felony counts. But the judge also cited the video and the many observations he heard from those who love him. “They all see real potential in you,” he told the defendant.
Minutes later, he ruled in the defense’s favor. DPD’s client, if he gets time off for good behavior, could be back with his family in 18 months.
The video was only the second one made by Kyle Ankeny, a mitigation specialist (or social worker) in one of DPD’s divisions. In both instances, the video seemed to have an impact – largely, Kyle says, because of the powerful and evocative medium film is, the way a video can capture a person’s humanity and hold the viewer’s attention.
“When people are handed a mitigation report, they tend to skim through it. They’re not as engaged,” Kyle said. “A video is much more interesting. I think it’s far more compelling.”
Rose Duffy, the public defender representing DPD’s client, said she also believes the video made a difference. “When we were talking about the hearing afterwards, we noted that all the specific facts the judge mentioned seemed to be from the video.”
“Psycho-social reports are still very important,” she added, referring to the kinds of mitigation reports DPD most commonly uses. “But when you have the right type of case and the right type of family support, a video can take it to the next level.”
Mitigation videos are relatively new at DPD. They’re routinely used by the Federal Public Defender’s Office, which has long had the resources for high-quality equipment and training. But at DPD, only a few such videos have been made over the years, and most often they’re done with out-of-house expertise.
Kyle, who has been a mitigation specialist in public defense for 10 years, is also a photographer on the side, so the leap to film was one he found he could make. He decided to try his hand at it a few months ago, when two public defenders asked him to consider a mitigation video for a murder 2 case that they all knew would be difficult to mitigate.
Kyle borrowed a camera and tripod from Rose, was able to get the department to install a basic film editing software package on his computer, and proceeded to make his first video, interviewing four people for the product. He interviewed four people for the DOSA video, as well.
Though his equipment is rudimentary – he still needs a decent mic and some lighting equipment – he feels he now has the tools in place, as well as some experience, to begin doing mitigation videos for those cases that seem to call for it.
“We’re just making our way into this arena,” he said. “So far, it’s great. Over time, I expect it will be very much the future of our mitigation reports.”