Storytelling that Bridges Deep Divides
At the center is Heather Shaner, a feisty, blue-haired, five-foot-tall public defender who has represented alleged criminals who can’t afford a lawyer in Washington, DC for more than 40 years. Committed to rehabilitating clients through empathy and education, Heather has earned a beloved status among the thousands she’s helped. But her empathy was tested on January 6, 2021. Heather felt violated by the mob of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol and attempted to overthrow the government. They scared her and she wanted nothing to do with them. Then she got the call.
The Federal Defenders Office asked her if she’d represent some of the January 6th rioters. Heather immediately turned down the felons accused of sedition, but after some reflection, she decided to take on a caseload of nonviolent offenders. She was curious how the average American could become radicalized and get swept up in a lie.
As the story unfolds, Heather’s assigned Tennessean Jack Griffith and Pennsylvanian Annie Howell. Both were charged with disorderly and disruptive conduct, as well as picketing inside the Capitol building. They claim they didn’t plan to take part in a violent coup, they just felt pride in being part of something important. Former President Trump’s MAGA campaign gave them that.
In learning the layers of their individual stories, Heather’s quickness in denouncing them all outright eases. She finds many were deceived by misinformation and mistook creeping authoritarianism for a righteous defense of democracy. She decides her clients need to know about America’s history and assigns them to read John Lewis’s autobiography and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” This is as much an entry point for conversation as a test of their commitment to personal growth. While Heather’s left-wing values remain the same, her empathetic approach allows hope that civil discourse across political divides is possible.
Still, the path is fraught. As Annie and Jack begin to trust their left-leaning lawyer, Heather faces death threats and criticism. She is condemned by liberals for extending sympathy to “traitors” and “terrorists,” and is accused by conservatives of subjecting her clients to “Soviet-style re-education.”
Though the Capitol attack has been covered extensively, there is scant reporting on the everyday Americans who joined the fray beyond the specifics of their aberrant actions that day. Unlike other documentaries on the subject, ‘A Capitol Case’ offers rare access into private lives beyond the courtroom, closed-door congressional meetings, attorney-client conversations, and unexpected, lighthearted moments of humor. More importantly, though, it is an intimate portrait of individuals grappling with beliefs they thought were hard-wired but are now being tested by unlikely friendships and lessons in history.
"Once you can see somebody as a human being, you can listen to them and once you listen to them, you can feel their pain, the remorse, what they want for the future." Heather Shaner A Capitol Case