Defense Documentaries: How Defense Attorneys Use Cinematic Storytelling to Reduce Sentences (Ep. 182 of The Business of Story Podcast Featuring Doug Passon)

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Continuing my goal of showcasing my own work in December, this week’s episode is all about my passion, my love, my baby; what we call DEFENSE DOCUMENTARIES.  Some call them mitigation videos or sentencing videos.  These are short, true, films produced for criminal cases (for plea negotion, sentencing, and post-conviction relief) and used to humanize our clients and advocate for them in a far more credible and powerful way.

I always say if the judge could spend the time with our clients and their families that we do, they’d have a whole new perspective on the case.  But our system isn’t built that way.  In fact, in some cases, the first time a judge ever lays eyes on a client is on the day of sentencing.  Therefore, a well-made, ethically sound, defense doc is the closest we can come to bringing the judge off the bench and into our world.  I have found these stories, told with pictures, to be far more powerful than the words and all the other paper we lawyers are taught to present to find justice at sentencing.

I’m not just a lawyer, I’m an award winning filmmaker.  I’ve had non-legal documentaries play at film festivals across the country and beyond.  In 2005 I began combining my two passions of law and film, making my first defense defense documentary.  My client received probation, and I never looked back.  I’ve been leading the charge in this powerful form of legal advocacy ever since.

A few years back, I was invited by Park Howell to be a guest on his incredible podcast, “The Business of Story”.  Park is also the co-author of the business version of the Narrative Gym book series.  Special thanks to him for allowing this re-broadcast.  Enjoy!


  • Doug’s “origin story” – how he became a lawyer and a filmmaker;
  • The story of the first defense doc Doug produced;
  • Making empathy your guiding light at sentencing and using defense docs to do it;
  • The important distinction between sympathy and empathy at sentencing;
  • The 3 primary elements necessary for an effective defense doc;
  • The “3Rs” of sentencing narrative.


  • The podcast opens with a STORY of a client I called “Daniel”.  At the time, I was using a pseudonym to respect his privacy.  Since then, he’s come out with his story and he was gracious enough to come on Set For Sentencing to tell it himself!  This was EPISODE 11, “It’s a Real Life: A Former Client’s Redemption story.”
  • Park Howell found me through what turned out to be a very controversial NYT Piece profiling my work, Called “No Jail Time, The Movie”. It was an NYT opinion piece or “op doc” that came out around 2017.  We’re going to do a whole other podcast about No Jail Time the Movie, the focus of which will be the ETHICAL implications of DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING, as the filmmaker, Lance Oppenheim did just about everything an ETHICAL documentarian should not do to get his movie made and into the hands of the Times.
  • The beauty of life, my practice, and my story journey has been constant learning and growth.  But, it occurs to me as I relistened to this great discussion that it occurred before Park Howell and I fully discovered and embraced the narrative structure of “AND, BUT, THEREFORE” (ABT), pioneered by story expert Dr. Randy Olson.  Therefore, we didn’t yet have the full vocabulary to express the truth of narrative structure and the evolution of our process in helping others craft their brand stories and their legal stories.  Now we do- and it’s ABT all the way, baby.  So, if I haven’t included enough shameless plugs for the ABT, here’s the Amazon link to buy my book, The Narrative Gym For Law: Intruducting the ABT framework For Persuasive Advocacy.
  • Along the same lines, we discussed my “3Rs” of Sentencing Narrative – but at the time, those ideas were also not fully formed.  Now they are!  And you can have a copy of my article from NACDL’s The Champion, for free.  Just click the download button:
  • Last, but certainly not least, if you are interested in learning more about The Business of Story and the incredible marketing and eductational opportunities Park Howell has to offer, visit:

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