Guilt or Innocence: Lessons About the Legal Process in American Courtroom Films
Summary and Keywords
American courtroom films depicting criminal trials have long resonated with audiences around the world, including viewers in countries whose legal systems are very different from those portrayed in the films. Three principal factors account for the broad popularity of these films.
1. Flexibility of the genre: The crimes with which defendants are charged can be carried out in an infinite number of ways and for an infinite variety of motives. Stories can be comedies or dramas; real or fictional; and “who-dunits,” “why-dunits,” or “how-dunits.”
2. The adversary system of trial: The American adversary system of trial is made to order for screenwriters. The question-and-answer format produces verbal duels between lawyers and witnesses that often result in surprise evidence, sudden plot twists, and in-your-face comeuppances. While the nominal targets of the testimony and the arguments are the jurors who are frequently present, the jurors are proxies for the writers’ ultimate targets, the viewers.
3. Subject matter: Defendants in courtroom films are typically charged with murder or other forms of serious crime, topics to which viewers in all countries can easily relate.
For individual courtroom films, the “moment of truth” typically occurs when viewers find out whether a defendant is innocent or guilty. But for the courtroom genre as a whole, “moments of truth” consist of the “macro lessons” that courtroom films “teach” to viewers about the American system of criminal justice. Most viewers, regardless of where they live, have had little or very little exposure to actual criminal trials. For most people, what they think they know about American criminal justice is based on the images of law, lawyers, and criminal justice portrayed in courtroom films.
Stories of crime and punishment are an enduring film subject. The stories can be dramatic or funny, truthful or fictional—and they can be set in any part of the world and in any time period.
Within the vast panoply of crime and punishment stories is an equally enduring but far more limited and culturally distinct genre: American courtroom films. This essay focuses on a subset of that genre: courtroom films depicting criminal trials. While the courtroom genre extends to civil disputes as well, such as the aptly named A Civil Action (Paramount Pictures, 1998), the vast majority of American courtroom films involve trials of defendants charged with crimes. Filmmakers apparently believe that murder and mayhem are much more likely to entice people to part with their entertainment dollars than zoning or contract disputes.
The boundaries of the criminal courtroom genre are admittedly flexible. Many criminal law–related films move a story forward with brief courtroom snippets, such as a jury returning its verdict or a judge pronouncing a sentence. But the presence of a brief courtroom scene or two does not justify locating a film in the criminal courtroom genre. For inclusion in or exclusion from this genre to meaningfully distinguish a courtroom film from other crime and punishment films, the genre should be limited to films in which factual or legal issues relating to the guilt, innocence, or punishment of defendants charged with crimes emerge through a realistic (if necessarily abbreviated) depiction of formal trial processes.
For example, we may identify a film as within the criminal courtroom genre if significant evidence relating to guilt or innocence emerges through question-and-answer dialogues between attorneys and witnesses, even if the film does not include the attorneys’ closing arguments to the judge or jury. And the opposite may be true. A film may be properly located within the genre if it depicts lawyers’ arguments to a judge or jury about a defendant’s criminal responsibility or the appropriate sentence based on evidence that emerged outside of the courtroom setting.1 So long as important factual information and/or legal arguments relating to guilt, innocence, or punishment emerge in a formalized courtroom setting, a film can usefully be placed in the criminal courtroom genre.2
Universality of the Genre
One might reasonably expect American crime and punishment courtroom films to appeal to audiences in the United States and other common law countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia. Virtually all viewers in these countries will be quite familiar with the general meaning of common criminal laws and the central features of the adversary system of trial such as the jury, the right to counsel, and the question-and-answer format for eliciting evidence.
Yet American criminal courtroom films also resonate with audiences in civil law countries whose criminal justice processes bear little resemblance to those depicted in the films. For example, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association selected the classic film To Kill a Mockingbird as 1962’s Best Film Promoting International Understanding, even though it depicts a trial set in the rural South in the 1930s.3 The 1992 film A Few Good Men, depicting a military trial that takes place on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, brought in nearly $100,000,000 in foreign ticket sales.4 And pop culture academic writers have pointed out that because of the widespread popularity of American courtroom films, “people in Continental Europe frequently mistake American legal procedure for that of their own country: in the absence of any direct contact with their own legal system, audiences, thanks to the global impact of Hollywood films, have a greater familiarity with American legal traditions than with their own laws.” Gies (2008). As a result, citizens of other countries are often shocked to learn that the criminal justice processes in their country are very different from those depicted in American courtroom films (Machura & Ulrich, 2001).
The most likely explanation for the widespread appeal of American criminal courtroom films is that the same hallmarks of the adversary system of trial that fulfill the requirements of the constitutional guarantee of “due process of law”5 also lend themselves to effective storytelling. For example:
• When jurors are present in an American courtroom film (as they almost always are), viewers are more than passive observers. Each viewer becomes in effect a “13th juror,” the target of the witnesses’ testimony, the lawyers’ arguments, and the judges’ instructions.
• Whatever the factual complexity and uniqueness, the central dispute in a courtroom film typically is straightforward. Arguments about guilt or innocence generally give rise to one of only two possible types of defense: (a) “I’m not guilty because I didn’t do it” or (b) “I’m not guilty because even though I did it, I was legally justified or excused.”
• The familiar trappings of courthouses and courtrooms add to the sense of a story’s reality and gravitas.
• Criminal defendants have a right to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses, and the mano-a-mano verbal sparring between lawyers and witnesses can result in in-your-face drama, comedy, and shocking and surprising revelations.
• Evidence emerges piecemeal through the oral testimony of individual witnesses, so that stories can suddenly take viewers in unexpected directions.
• Evidence is often visual as well as verbal. For example, lawyers rely on both “real” evidence (such as a murder weapon) and “demonstrative” evidence (including charts, computer animations, and even live courtroom demonstrations).
• A jury’s verdict or a judge’s finding of guilt or innocence provides suspense and story closure and often determines whether a film’s message is one of justice or injustice.
• The applicability of legal rules filled with abstract terms such as “malice aforethought” to concrete factual scenarios can give rise to uncertainty that offers lay viewers a chance to consider moral and political questions about the meaning and even the legitimacy of legal rules and processes.
As a result of the ubiquitousness of criminal law–related American courtroom films, viewers around the world are familiar with many of the rules and procedures that arise in the stories that these films tell. For instance, American and non-American viewers alike are likely to know that police officers have to issue “Miranda warnings” to suspects before interrogating them and that prosecutors have to prove defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.6 Thus viewers the world over can connect to the stories that these films tell even if the criminal justice processes that the films depict are very different from those in the countries in which viewers live.
Genre as Mass Educator
While American courtroom films may entertain mass audiences with stories about guilt or innocence, their more significant cultural role is to educate audiences about law, lawyers, and justice. People can evaluate the stories in most films from firsthand experience. For example, virtually all of us have experienced teen-age angst, we’ve been parents or children, and we’ve been in and out of romantic relationships. But while a core concern of citizens of virtually every country is the effective functioning of its criminal justice system, thankfully only a small percentage of a country’s population is likely to have firsthand knowledge of its criminal justice processes. Relatively few people are arrested and prosecuted, and even fewer are the people who turn to a friend and say something like, “I’m in the mood for a good time. Let’s find a courthouse and spend the day watching a portion of a criminal trial.”
As a result, what most people know—or think they know—about American criminal law, lawyers, and the functioning of the adversary system is a result of watching American courtroom films. One reason for this is that these films tend to portray key components of the adversary system in a similar way. While these portrayals cannot be “accurate,” many courtroom films are “truthful” in that they realistically portray core features of the adversary process such as direct and cross-examination and adapt them to the needs of the stories.7
Moreover, courtroom films have to attract mass audiences if they are to be commercially successful. And courtroom films attract mass audiences by building on popular attitudes toward lawyers and the adversary system—even if those attitudes are based partly on exposure to earlier courtroom films.
Thus the films of the “guilty or innocent” courtroom genre both reflect and reinforce popular attitudes about lawyers and the adversary process. The remainder of this essay examines the “curriculum” of American courtroom films. What are the principal lessons that emerge from the films in the American courtroom genre?
Lesson No. 1: The American Criminal Justice System Is Attorney-Centered
The United States prides itself on being “a nation of laws, not men.” For defendants accused of crimes, this shibboleth means that guilt or innocence must be determined according to processes that afford them “due process of law.” Across all jurisdictions and for all people charged with crimes, neutral judges follow ritual processes and enforce rules of evidence that presumably promote the ascertainment of truth and the accurate assessment of guilt or innocence. The imperfection of human beings means that mistaken outcomes are inevitable; fair and thorough processes do not always result in accurate verdicts. But American justice relies on judges and the internal processes of the adversary system to provide equal justice under law by fostering determinations of guilt or innocence in a reliable manner.8
Alongside popular attitudes that judges are at the head of an adversary system that is a legitimate method of ascertaining truth and dispensing justice is another image of the adversary system: lawyers matter. In a system in which prosecutors and defense attorneys investigate cases and decide what evidence to offer and arguments to make, the best (and often most expensive) lawyers are those who can use the adversary system to their advantage and achieve the best results for their clients. Thus, while as a formal matter judges preside over trials in which guilt or innocence is determined through the processes of the adversary system, American courtroom films capitalize on this second image of the adversary system by reinforcing viewers’ attitudes that trials are “attorney-centered.” In American courtroom films, judges are typically secondary characters who react to the competing lawyers whose actions normally drive stories forward. Whether outcomes are just or unjust, verdicts of guilt or innocence almost always rest on the talents, skills, and creativity of individual prosecutors or defense lawyers rather than on the actions of judges or the ritual processes of the adversary system. Lesson No. 1 of American courtroom films is that lawyers do indeed matter and that insofar as the adversary system is concerned, the United States is primarily a “nation of men (usually), not laws.”
The hugely successful film Chicago (Miramax Pictures, 2002) exemplifies the attorney-centric nature of American courtroom films. Roxie Hart is charged with murder for gunning down Fred Casely in cold blood. The motive was Roxie’s awareness that Casely had fooled her into sleeping with him by lying to her about his ability to make her a show business star. Roxie’s lawyer is Billy Flynn, whose record of successful defenses of starlets charged with murder is unblemished. Nevertheless, as the trial is about to start Roxie confesses to Billy that she’s scared. Billy reassures Roxie through the song “Razzle-Dazzle” (written by John Kander and Fred Epps) that she has nothing to worry about:
- It’s all show business kid
- These trials, the whole world, it’s a circus.
- But kid, you’re working with a star.
The song’s lyrics reflect and reinforce the popular attitude that lawyers really matter. Billy explicitly tells Roxie and the film’s viewers that trials are just a form of mass entertainment. As Billy sings, the film visually reinforces his message, switching seamlessly back and forth between the colorful world of a circus and the more lackluster world of the trial. And in a world where trials are entertainment and the best story wins, Billy need not be overly concerned with truth. It’s enough that the jury accepts the carefully crafted, phony self-defense story that Billy concocted for Roxie to tell to the jury. Neither the presiding judge nor the procedures of the adversary system are a match for Billy’s star power and storytelling skills. The jurors quickly find Roxie not guilty.
The character of Billy Flynn is based on William Fallon, who in the early part of the 20th century was one of New York City’s most successful and notorious defense lawyers. Fallon successfully represented so many mobsters that he became known as the Mouthpiece for the Mob (Gene Fowler, 1931). The film The Mouthpiece (Warner Bros., 1932), featuring one of Fallon’s actual courtroom gambits, further illustrates the attorney-centric nature of most American courtroom films. Defense lawyer Vincent Day represents a mobster in a murder-by-poison case. Day’s closing argument consists of his drinking the remaining contents of the bottle of poison that the prosecution claims was used by the defendant to kill the victim. The jurors interrupt their deliberations to check on Day’s condition, and when they find him sitting serenely in the courtroom dictating a letter to his secretary, they find the defendant not guilty. Afterwards, Day rushes to an office across the street from the courthouse, where medical personnel are waiting to pump his stomach. Now there’s a defendant who really got his money’s worth!
The film that most memorably evokes the attorney-centric message of courtroom films is the magnificent To Kill a Mockingbird (Universal International, 1962). Set in the rural American South of the 1930s, the film depicts the trial of Tom Robinson, a poor black sharecropper, for the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell, a white woman. Atticus Finch takes on Robinson’s hopeless defense because, as Atticus tells his daughter Scout, “If I didn’t, I couldn’t hold my head up in town. I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.” The American Film Institute regards Atticus Finch as film’s all-time No. 1 Movie Hero, outranking even James Bond, Oskar Schindler, and Han Solo. Atticus does not succeed; Tom Robinson is convicted and hung by a mob. Nevertheless, Atticus is the central character in the courtroom, and he has inspired countless numbers of people to go to law school. They do not just want to be lawyers; they want to be Atticus Finch.
In They Won’t Forget (Warner Bros., 1937) the attorney-centric character whose actions result in an unjust conviction is a prosecutor rather than a defense lawyer. Secretarial student Mary Clay is murdered in the building in which she attends classes, and black janitor Tump Redwine is the logical suspect. However, prosecutor Andy Griffin realizes that in the South, convicting a black defendant is so easy that a conviction of Redwine would in no way further Griffin’s ambitions to become a U.S. senator: “any law student could do that.” Griffin therefore chooses to prosecute Mary’s Caucasian teacher, Robert Hale. Hale is not only white, he is also a northerner who recently came south in search of employment. Griffin correctly figures that a few flimsy pieces of circumstantial evidence will be more than enough to convince a southern jury to convict a hated northern outsider of murder. The notoriety of the trial and Griffin’s willingness to forgo the easy target of the black janitor turn Griffin into a local hero.
While the ambitious prosecutor in They Won’t Forget demonstrates that an attorney-centric justice system can result in the unjust conviction of an outsider, Fury (MGM Pictures, 1936) teaches audiences that individual craft and courage may be necessary if prosecutors are to obtain justice on behalf of outsiders. In Fury, Joe Wilson is a stranger driving through a small town. Circumstantial evidence links him to a notorious local kidnapping, and Wilson is taken to jail. Many of the town’s inhabitants storm the jail and burn it to the ground. After the fire, all that remains of Wilson is his ring. When the real kidnappers are arrested, the town’s leaders try to convince prosecutor Adams not to pursue murder charges against the members of the mob. Adams stands up to the town leaders; he charges 22 of the town’s inhabitants with murder. Adams pursues an unusual but creatively brilliant trial strategy. Each of the witnesses he calls to the stand provides an alibi for one or more of the defendants. The defense attorney is about to move for a dismissal of the charges when Adams shocks him by showing newsreel footage of the defendants burning down the jail. The newsreel footage not only proves that the defendants are guilty of murdering Wilson, it also it subjects the alibi witness to perjury charges. Adam’s heroic refusal to capitulate to the demands of the town leaders was needed if justice was to prevail.
In Compulsion (20th Century Pox 1959), attorney Jonathan Wilk represents two college-age defendants who killed a teenager just to prove to themselves that they were intellectual supermen who could commit a perfect murder and get away with it.9 Wilk makes a tactical decision that startles his clients and their parents: he will bypass the obviously hostile jury by having the defendants plead guilty and try to convince the judge to sentence them to life in prison rather than death. Wilk’s eloquent argument to the judge is the film’s centerpiece: “This court is told to give [the defendants] the same mercy as they gave their victim. Your Honor, if our state is not kinder, more human and more intelligent than the mad act of these two sick boys, then I’m sorry I’ve lived so long … I’m not pleading for these two lives but for life itself.” Wilk’s tactic succeeds: the defendants are sentenced to life in prison.10 Had the defendants been represented by an attorney who lacked Wilk’s eloquence and strategic brilliance, they surely would have been sentenced to death.
Adam’s Rib (MGM Pictures, 1949) suggests that if courtroom films typically portray the adversary system in a way that suggests that the United States is a nation of men rather than laws, at least they occasionally portray it as a country of women as well.11 Doris Attinger finds out that her husband Warren has been keeping company with a hussy named Beryl. Doris secretly follows Warren to Beryl’s apartment, breaks open the door and fires a gun wildly in the general direction of Warren and Beryl. Doris’s plan was only to scare Warren, but the bullet strikes Warren’s arm and Doris is charged with attempted murder. Doris’s defense attorney is Amanda Bonner. The prosecutor is none other than Amanda’s husband Adam, who is fiercely devoted to the ritual processes of the adversary system. Amanda is even more fiercely devoted to equal justice for women and men, and her chaotic courtroom tactics produce newspaper headlines. Her closing argument is an eloquent plea for equal justice. As Doris, Warren, and Beryl morph onscreen into opposite genders, Amanda argues that just as “the unwritten law” would excuse a man who tried to protect the sanctity of his home and marriage, so should the same unwritten law excuse Doris for shooting at Warren. Amanda’s extraordinary plea for “equality of the sexes” was legally improper because an unwritten law would not have protected Warren either.12 Nevertheless, her eloquence and personal commitment to the cause of her client and women in general produces what viewers surely accept as attorney-centric justice.
The Accused (Paramount Pictures, 1988) also features a strong female lawyer whose personal commitment to justice makes a difference, but this time she is a prosecutor. Three men rape Sarah Tobias in a bar, to the delight of other men who cheer the rapists on. Prosecutor Kathryn Murphy is worried that Sarah’s intoxication and drug use on the night of the rape might lead jurors to accept the defense argument that the intercourse was consensual. Murphy reluctantly agrees to a plea bargain, dropping the rape charges in exchange for the rapists’ guilty pleas to misdemeanors that carry light sentences. Murphy soon comes to understand that the plea bargain was disrespectful to Tobias and to Murphy’s own commitment to justice. Ignoring her supervisor’s order not to pursue a hopeless cause, Murphy files criminal charges against three of the barflies who encouraged the rapists to continue their attacks on Tobias. Murphy’s redemptive actions vindicate Tobias’s humanity, as the jury convicts the barflies of serious felonies.
The wonderful comedy My Cousin Vinny (20th Century Fox, 1992) serves as a final example of attorney-centered courtroom films that reinforce popular attitudes that outcomes depend on the skills and talents of individual attorneys. College students Bill and Stan are driving across the country (because they have transferred from NYU to UCLA, I should point out). As they drive away after a quick stop at a rural Alabama convenience store, they are mistakenly arrested and charged with robbing the store and killing the clerk. To their rescue come Bill’s brash cousin Vinny and his equally brash fiancée, Mona Lisa Vito. Vinny claims to have passed the New York bar exam after a number of unsuccessful attempts, and the judge reluctantly allows him to represent the defendants. Despite his ignorance of courtroom procedures, Vinny effectively cross-examines the three prosecution eyewitnesses. But the defense suffers a severe blow when a surprise FBI witness testifies for the prosecution that Bill and Stan’s car was responsible for the tire marks that were left on the road as the murderers sped away from the convenience store. Once again, however, an attorney’s extraordinary personal skills and talents rather than the ordinary processes of the adversary system are responsible for the outcome of the trial. As he stares at a photo of the tire marks, Vinny realizes that Bill and Stan’s car could not have been the source of the tire marks. Vinny calls Mona Lisa Vito as an expert witness because, like Vinny, she just happens to have expertise in “general automotive knowledge.” After Mona Lisa explains why Bill and Stan’s car could not have been the source of the tire marks, the FBI agent concedes that he was wrong. It’s smiles all around as the prosecutor drops the charges and (again with Vinny’s help) the real murderers are apprehended.
Does the attorney-centered image of the adversary system routinely portrayed in American courtroom films accurately reflect popular attitudes that lawyers’ tactical choices, skills, and talents play a legitimate role in the determination of guilt or innocence? While the question cannot be answered with certainty, the trial of O. J. Simpson suggests that the answer may be “yes.”
In the mid-1990s, people all around the world were riveted by the trial in Los Angeles of African American football star and movie celebrity O. J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and a companion, Ronald Goldman. The eight-month-long trial was shown live on television in virtually every country. The predominantly black jury acquitted Simpson of the murder charges despite what appeared to most observers to be overwhelming evidence of Simpson’s guilt. The not guilty verdict produced outrage from many commentators as well as numerous calls for changes to the criminal justice system that might prevent another miscarriage of justice. Yet the uproar over the verdict died down rapidly, and no changes to the criminal justice system were made. The reason may be that despite sharp differences in reactions to the verdict, virtually everyone agreed that the defense lawyers greatly outperformed the prosecutors. In accord with Lesson No. 1, popular attitudes reflect acceptance of the attorney-centeredness of the adversary system. As the lesson teaches, lawyers’ creativity, skills, and talents are a legitimate aspect of the determination of truth and justice.
Lesson No. 2: Cross Examination Is the Most Critical Phase of Trials
The “Confrontation Clause” of the federal constitution grants to criminal defendants the right to cross-examine the witnesses who testify against them. Cross-examination is perhaps the central hallmark of the adversary system of trial. The famous Evidence scholar Dean and Professor John Wigmore wrote that “Cross-examination is the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.”13 The United States Supreme Court also underlined the importance of cross-examination in the case of Crawford v. Washington (541 U.S. 36, 2004). Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Scalia stated in Crawford that, “To be sure, the Clause’s ultimate goal is to ensure reliability of evidence, but it is a procedural rather than a substantive guarantee. It commands, not that evidence be reliable, but that reliability be assessed in a particular manner: by testing in the crucible of cross-examination.”
Lesson No. 2 of American courtroom films is that cross -examination is more than a hallmark of the adversary system of trial. Courtroom films repeatedly portray cross-examination as the key to trial outcomes. In the attorney-centered adversary system, attorneys are like mythical beasts who possess a great knockout punch and a glass jaw. The films teach viewers that lurking in every trial is one cross-examination question that, if asked, will produce a successful outcome and another cross examination question that, if asked, will produce a disastrous result.
Woody Allen parodied this exaggerated image of cross-examination in his early comedy film Bananas (United Artists, 1971). In Bananas, Fielding Mellish is accused of treason. A prosecution witness testifies to overhearing Mellish make treasonous remarks. Mellish represents himself, and pursuant to the judge’s order has been tied to a chair and gagged because of his refusal to uphold court decorum. Though the gagged Mellish’s cross-examination questions are muffled and unintelligible, his cross-examination results in the prosecution witness’s anguished cry that Mellish is “putting words in my mouth.” The prosecution witness tearfully confesses that “Yes, I lied.” Following is a selection of the many courtroom films whose all-powerful images of cross-examination were parodied by Woody Allen in Bananas.
The mythical cross-examination beasts with the knockout punches are generally defense lawyers. In Criminal Court (RKO Radio Pictures, 1946) defense lawyer Steve Barnes cross-examines prosecution eyewitness Brown. Brown testified on direct examination that he was standing just a few feet from the murder victim when Barnes’s client rushed up, pulled out a gun, and shot the victim. Barnes becomes increasingly agitated as his questions fail to force Brown to confess that he is lying. Barnes finally explodes. He accuses Brown of perjury and yells that if justice is to be done, he will have to take matters into his own hands. Barnes reaches into his jacket and pulls out a gun. In reaction to the sudden appearance of the gun, a terrified Brown dives for cover behind the witness chair. Everyone else in the courtroom, including the judge and prosecutor, screams and hides. Barnes then walks over to the equally terrified jurors and asks them to observe Brown, still crouching in fear behind the witness chair. Barnes tells the jurors, “There’s the man who claims to have stood calmly by as a man who he believed intended to use it rushed up with a gun.” Brown’s courtroom behavior in response to Barnes’s cross-examination tactic contradicts his testimony that he stood calmly by as a murderer rushed up brandishing a gun, and the jury finds Barnes’s client not guilty.14
Lieutenant Kaffee’s cross-examination of Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men (Columbia Pictures, 1992) produced both a confession of guilt and the sure-to-be-immortal catchphrase, “You can’t handle the truth.” Kaffee’s clients are Marines stationed on Guantanamo. They subjected an unhappy fellow Marine named Santiago to a “Code Red” hazing that went so terribly wrong that Santiago accidentally died. As a result, Kaffee’s clients are charged with murder. Kaffee’s defense is that his clients are not guilty of murder because their commander Col. Jessep ordered them to carry out the Code Red. Jessep is arrogant and insulting in response to Kaffee’s cross-examination questions. Kaffee finally accuses Jessep of ordering the Code Red and concealing the records relating to the order. When Kaffee angrily demands that Jessep tell the truth, Jessep screams at Kaffee that “You can’t handle the truth … Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives … You’re goddamn right I ordered the Code Red.” Jessep’s startling confession in response to Kaffee’s aggressive cross-examination results in a dismissal of the murder charges.
Abraham Lincoln’s dramatic and successful cross examination of prosecution eyewitness J. Palmer Cass in Young Mr. Lincoln (20th Century Fox, 1939) is based on a tactic that Lincoln employed in the most well-known criminal case he ever tried. Out of gratitude to the defendant’s parents for the help they gave him early in his career, Lincoln defends Matt Clay, who along with his brother Adam has been charged with stabbing Scrub White to death. After initially testifying that he saw both Matt and his brother Adam attack White, Cass corrects himself and testifies that Matt Clay alone stabbed White. Cross-examined by Lincoln, Cass admits that he was about 100 yards away from the grassy area where the attack took place and that it was dark out at the time of the attack, about 11 p.m. Asked by Lincoln how he was able to identify the attacker from that distance at night, Cass testifies that he could see what happened because the scene was “moon bright.” Lincoln says that he has no further questions, but as a smirking Cass walks toward the back of the courtroom, Lincoln suddenly continues his cross-examination by accusing Cass of killing White. Lincoln hands Cass an almanac that is open to the page indicating that on the night of the murder, the moon had set about an hour before the killing took place. Caught in a lie about his ability to see Matt Clay kill White, Cass confesses that he murdered White.
Habitual viewers of courtroom films could be excused for thinking that when cross-examined by defense lawyers, prosecution witnesses routinely confess to murder. In Legally Blonde (MGM Pictures, 2001), first-year law student Elle Woods improbably is part of the defense team defending trophy wife Brooke Windham on a charge of murdering her older, wealthy husband. Even more improbably, Elle is given the task of cross-examining the key prosecution eyewitness, the victim’s spoiled-rotten daughter Chutney. Chutney testifies that while she was showering she heard a gunshot. She came downstairs and saw the defendant Windham standing over the body of her father, holding a gun. The meticulously groomed Elle Woods spots a fatal flaw in Chutney’s story and hammers away at it on cross-examination. When Elle asks Chutney to recount her earlier activities on the day her father was killed, Chutney testifies that she had been at the hairdresser and gotten a permanent. Elle points out to Chutney that if she had gotten a perm earlier in the day, she wouldn’t have ruined it by taking a shower. In response to Elle’s rapid-fire questions, a distraught Chutney admits that she hadn’t been in the shower when her father was shot by defendant Windham. Chutney admits that she herself had fired the gun, intending to kill Windham but killing her father by mistake. Elle celebrates her cross-examination triumph, not realizing that in all probability the highlight of her legal career occurred while she was still a first-year law student.
The mythical cross-examination beasts with the glass jaws often turn out to be prosecutors. In the classic film Anatomy of a Murder (Columbia Pictures, 1959), Lt. Manion is charged with murdering Barney Quill. Manion admits that he shot Quill to death but claims that he shot him while in the grip of irresistible impulse (a form of temporary insanity). This mental state allegedly developed when Manion came home late one night to find out that Quill had raped and brutally beaten Manion’s wife Laura. Trance-like, Manion walked down the road to the tavern that Quill owned, shot him, and called the police when he realized what had happened. Prosecutor Claude Dancer argues that the rape story is a phony and that Manion beat up Laura and killed Quill after realizing that Quill and Laura had become lovers. Defense lawyer Paul Biegler undermines Dancer’s argument by producing surprise witness Mary Palant, who worked in Quill’s tavern. Palant supports the rape story, testifying that the morning after Manion killed Quill, she found Mrs. Manion’s badly torn panties at the bottom of the laundry chute next to Quill’s room. Dancer tears into Palant on cross-examination. He accuses her of being Quill’s scorned lover who is lying about finding the panties in order to get back at him for dumping her in favor of Mrs. Manion. When Palant responds that she has no idea what Dancer means, Dancer angrily goes into more detail: “Miss Palant, weren’t you Barney Quill’s mistress?” A shocked Palant replies, “No, Barney Quill was my …” Before she can finish her answer, an even more snarling Dancer gets into her face and snarls, “Barney Quill was what, Miss Palant? Barney Quill was what?” Her answer stuns Dancer: “Barney Quill was my father.” Palant’s answer destroys Dancer’s argument that Palant lied because she was Quill’s scorned lover. Dancer immediately recognizes that his bumbling cross-examination strengthened Palant’s direct examination testimony that she found the torn panties at the bottom of Quill’s laundry shoot. A not guilty verdict is inevitable, and all Dancer can do is meekly slink back to counsel table, barely whispering, “No more questions.”
Mary Palant’s “pie in the prosecutor’s face” response to Dancer’s cross-examination charge that she was Quill’s scorned lover underlines the comment in Lesson No. 1 that courtroom movies portray attorney performance as a legitimate aspect of determinations of guilt and innocence. Dancer’s baseless charge that Palant and Quill were lovers demonstrates that he deserves to lose the case and that the not guilty verdict is legitimate. But a chronological understanding of Palant’s story reveals that in all likelihood, Lt. Manion was guilty of murder and should have been convicted. Palant testified that she was going about her normal laundry-sorting activities the morning after Quill was killed when she found the torn panties at the bottom of his laundry chute. But if her father had been brutally gunned down a few hours earlier, is it likely that she would be sorting the laundry as usual the next morning? Much more likely, she would have taken at least a couple of days off from her duties while she grieved and made funeral arrangements. If so, Manion would have had a good opportunity to ask an associate to tear apart one of his wife’s panties and toss them into the laundry chute in the hallway outside Quill’s door. Palant would have found the panties when she went back to work, just not the next morning. But Dancer is so anxious to catch Palant in a dramatic lie that he never realizes that she may well be testifying honestly but mistakenly. The prosecutor’s inept cross-examination performance results in Manion’s exoneration and for most viewers helps to legitimate a seemingly wrong verdict.
My Cousin Vinny also features a classic example of a prosecutor’s cross-examination gone wrong. Defense lawyer Vinny calls his fiancée Mona Lisa Vito as an expert witness on “general automotive mechanics” to testify that the defendants’ car was not the source of the tire marks that the rapidly escaping car left in front of the convenience store that was the scene of the robbery/murder. District Attorney Trotter immediately asks to “voir dire the witness,” planning to demonstrate through preliminary cross-examination questioning that she is not qualified as an expert.15 Trotter magnifies his eventual comeuppance by asking questions that disparage Mona Lisa’s background, as she has to admit that her current profession is “out-of-work hairdresser.” Trotter then asks Mona Lisa what the correct ignition timing would be on a particular make and model of car with a 4-barrel carburetor. Mona Lisa responds that it is a “bullshit question, I can’t answer it.” Thinking that he is on the verge of victory, Trotter leans into Mona Lisa’s face and asks the judge to “disqualify Ms. Vito as an expert witness.” The judge’s question to Mona Lisa as to why she can’t answer Trotter’s question produces the comeuppance: she explains that the make and model of car to which Trotter referred was not available with a 4-barrel carburetor. But she testifies that had it been, “the correct ignition timing would be 4 degrees of tap dead center.” Mona Lisa’s surprising and detailed knowledge of cars and engines explodes Trotter’s attack. Trotter waives his hand in surrender and he slinks back to counsel table as he meekly tells the judge that “she’s acceptable.”
Prosecutors are not always on the losing end of crucial cross-examinations. In A Place in the Sun (Paramount Pictures, 1951), George Eastman is accused of murdering Alice Tripp, his dirt-poor fiancée whom he has already impregnated. Prosecutor Marlowe offers evidence that Eastman was anxious to get rid of Tripp so that he could marry wealthy socialite Angela Vickers. Marlowe’s evidence suggests that Eastman took Tripp canoeing in Loon Lake, hit her over the head, and overturned the canoe. Tripp drowned while Eastman swam safely to shore. Eastman testifies in his own defense that the canoe tipped over accidentally when Tripp suddenly stood up, and that he tried to save her from drowning but was unable to. Marlowe brings the canoe into the courtroom and has Eastman sit in it while Marlowe conducts a relentless cross-examination. Marlowe’s questions ridicule Eastman’s accident story as Marlow continuously strikes the canoe with an oar. Marlowe angrily and repeatedly insists that Eastman is a murderer, and Marlowe becomes so angry and agitated that he dramatically smashes the oar to bits on the side of the canoe. Eastman’s defense crumbles along with the oar, and the jury convicts him of murder.
Echoed in so many courtroom films, trial scenes such as those summarized above teach viewers that guilt or innocence depends on lawyers’ cross-examination skills. Screenwriters’ needs to create drama or comedy undoubtedly produce over-the-top cross-examinations that do not reflect reality. The experience of most criminal litigators is that “[c]ross examination is not where you win the case. It is one place you get the tools you need to win the case” (Lyon, 2010). Nevertheless, Lesson No. 2 of courtroom films is that verdicts of guilt or innocence rest on lawyers’ cross-examination skills.
Lesson No. 3: Jury Trials Are the Norm
Asked to identify the paradigmatic feature of the American criminal justice system, a significant portion of respondents will probably identify the jury trial. Comparing the number of jury trials that take place in the United States to those that take place in other countries, these respondents would be correct. The usual estimate is that about 95% of all the cases in the world that are tried by juries take place in the United States (Hall, 2011). But that is because so few jury trials take place in other countries rather than because so many take place in the United States.
Indeed, the number of cases in which the guilt or innocence of a defendant in the United States is decided by juries has declined greatly in recent decades. A study conducted by the National Center for State Courts indicated that in the mid-1970s, about 8% of all criminal cases in which defendants were charged with felonies in state courts resulted in trials. Three decades later, the percentage of felony cases that resulted in trials had fallen to 2.3% (Clark, 2013). Confronting statistics such as these, researchers refer to the “vanishing trial” phenomenon (Strickland, 2005).
The image created by courtroom films is markedly different from the steep decline in the number of criminal charges decided by juries. Juries are present in virtually all American courtroom films.16 The presence of jurors serves a variety of storytelling purposes. For example, the presence of jurors adds to the significance of the court proceedings. Jurors also serve as stand-ins for viewers—a close-up shot of jurors reacting to testimony signals to viewers how they might react. As a result, these films teach viewers that jury trials are the norm rather than the exception. While reality may beg to differ, courtroom films support popular attitudes that jury trials are the paradigmatic feature of the American criminal justice system.
More than functioning simply as supporting players, jurors sometimes become the central characters in American courtroom films. The most famous example of jurors taking center stage is the classic film 12 Angry Men (United Artists, 1957). Virtually the entire film depicts the jury deliberations in case in which a poor Puerto Rican defendant is charged with murdering his father. Except for Juror No. 8, the other 11 jurors are anxious to convict the defendant immediately and go about their normal business. Juror No. 8 concedes that the defendant may be guilty, but he insists that the jurors review the prosecution’s evidence closely to make sure that it is sufficient to constitute proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As the deliberations progress, weaknesses in the prosecution’s case begin to appear. All the jurors eventually set aside their biases and agree on a not guilty verdict. The film portrays the jury as a bastion of common sense that guarantees a fair trial even for the most powerless of defendants.
Other courtroom films also celebrate the criminal trial jury, though in a far less serious way than 12 Angry Men. In Suspect (Columbia Pictures, 1987), a juror turns out to be a crack investigator, joining forces with a public defender to exculpate the defendant and expose the real murderer. And in On Trial (Warner Bros., 1936), the jurors interrupt their deliberations and go back into the courtroom, where the jury foreman asks for and receives permission to question the defendant. On Trial also depicts the criminal trial jury’s ultimate power to nullify the law. The jurors conclude that the defendant is indeed a murderer, but decide on a not guilty verdict because the victim was a rotter who was trying to pressure the defendant’s wife into sleeping with him. Whatever its merits, the jury’s not guilty verdict is final. Neither the trial judge nor a higher court can set the not guilty verdict aside and order a new trial. (Bergman & Asimow, 2006)17
Whether courtroom films portray jurors as silent observers or active participants, Lesson No. 3 results from the regular appearance of juries in courtroom films. Though American courtroom films may not always present a positive image of its criminal justice system, they at least sustain the popular attitude that jury trials are not vanishing but rather are alive and flourishing.
Lesson No. 4: Criminal Trials Often Involve Difficult Moral and Political Issues That Extend Far Beyond Individual Guilt or Innocence
Lesson No. 4 teaches courtroom film audiences that broad moral and socially divisive issues are often embedded in arguments about individual guilt or innocence. The criminal justice system is intertwined with the larger polity of which it is a part, so that criminal prosecutions frequently involve moral and political concerns that extend far beyond the guilt or innocence of the individuals on trial. Courtroom films therefore serve an important social function. They translate abstract debates about moral and political concerns into concrete and memorable stories that focus on individual criminal responsibility. As the examples below suggest, courtroom films have entered into a wide variety of moral and political debates.
Should evolution be taught in public schools? In Inherit the Wind (United Artists, 1960), public high school teacher Bert Cates is charged with teaching his students about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in violation of a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. Cates’s guilt or innocence depended simply on whether he had violated the law by teaching his students about the theory of evolution. Much of the film, however, has little to do with Cates’s classroom activity. Instead, the film focuses on the wisdom and the legitimacy of the law. The arguments emerge primarily through the examination by the defense lawyer of one of the prosecutors, who as an expert on the Bible is made to look foolish as he tries to defend the biblical theory of creation against principles drawn from natural science. Cates is convicted. But the minimal fine that the judge imposes and the image of everyone in the courtroom walking out during the prosecutor’s post-trial rant against evolution send a strong message to viewers that the Tennessee law was an unconstitutional attempt to use the criminal law to enforce conformity with religious beliefs.
Is the death penalty morally defensible? In Compulsion, defense lawyer Jonathan Wilk’s clients plead guilty to murder. All that is left to determine is their punishment, and Wilk pleads with the judge to sentence his clients to life in prison rather than death. But the real targets of Wilk’s argument are the film’s viewers, and his message to them is the illegitimacy of the death penalty in general rather than its application to his clients. Wilk suggests that a death sentence is itself a form of murder by arguing to the judge in the language of the law of first degree murder that “if these boys must hang, you must do it. It must be your own cool, deliberate, premeditated act.” Wilk tells the judge that “if you hang these boys you turn back to the past. I’m pleading for the future. I’m pleading not for these two boys but for life itself.”
Are fair trials possible in racially unequal communities? To Kill a Mockingbird is nominally about whether a poor black sharecropper raped a white woman in the rural south of the 1930s. But the film raises larger questions about the possibility of justice for members of minority groups in communities characterized by racial inequality. Defense lawyer Atticus Finch argues that “the courts are the great leveler. In our courts, all men are created equal.” But even as he speaks, the film’s visual imagery contradicts his words: white people sit downstairs in the courtroom, while the blacks are crowded into an upstairs gallery. Released during the American civil rights era of the 1950s and ’60s but set in the rural south of the 1930s, the film is able to condemn the racist social system of the south and the injustice it produces without directly attacking the racial attitudes of contemporary viewers.
How does terrorism effect the criminal justice process? The film In the Name of the Father (Universal Pictures, 1993) depicts the story of the alleged IRA (Irish Republican Army) terrorists who during “the troubles” with England were charged with setting off a bomb that killed five people in a Guildford pub. The police are anxious to reassure the public that they are up to the task of fighting terrorism. They ignore the alibi stories of Conlon and Hill, two of the alleged terrorists, and torture them into confessions of guilt. After the defendants had been convicted and imprisoned for years, a lawyer is mistakenly given access to a police file indicating that police officers knew all along that Conlon and Hill had an alibi and were nowhere near the pub when the bombing took place. The film’s nominal message is that Conlon and Hill were unjustly convicted. Its larger message cautions viewers to question the wisdom and fairness of government reactions to terrorism.
Should military actions be evaluated according to civil norms? In A Few Good Men, Col. Jessep is arrested after admitting during a military court martial trial that he ordered a “Code Red,” a hazing that resulted in the death of a U.S. Marine private. He couples his admission with a speech in which he seeks to justify his actions: “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom … You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall—you need me on that wall … I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand the post.” Jessep’s tirade cautions viewers that it may be unfair to evaluate military officers’ according to the legal rules of civilian life.
Lesson No. 5: The Criminal Justice System Is a Part of “American Exceptionalism”
“American exceptionalism” 18 refers to the special character of the United States as a free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty. Perhaps the broadest lesson that American courtroom films teaches viewers is that the criminal justice system is a central component of this exceptionalism.
The visual imagery in courtroom films typically transmits implicit messages to viewers that the criminal justice system is an essential aspect of American democracy. Courthouses are often imposing and classical in style, fronted by steep, wide steps and thick pillars. Courtrooms are formal, and the proceedings are presided over by robed judges who enforce idiosyncratic rules and rituals. The judges sit behind raised benches, lawyers sit at wide polished tables, jurors sit close to witnesses behind formal railings, and uniformed bailiffs enforce order and demand silent attention to the proceedings. The frequent presence of spectators signals to viewers that what happens in court is worthy of attention and that the courtroom proceedings are emblematic of life in a participatory democracy.
While the visual imagery of courtroom films implicitly teaches viewers that the adversary system of trial is part of the democratic ideal, many courtroom films teach this lesson more explicitly. Chief among them is the celebrated The Talk of the Town (Columbia Pictures, 1942), which was released during the dark days of World War II. Michael Lightcap is a law professor who rents a room in a rural cabin so that he can finish writing a legal treatise before he takes his spot as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Hiding from the authorities in the same cabin is Leopold Dilg, ostensibly a gardener but actually an escaped convict whose unjust murder conviction was set up by corrupt local politicians. Dilg is recaptured, and when he is taken to court an angry mob storms the courtroom, intent on taking justice into its own hands. In the nick of time, Lightcap runs into the courtroom with the supposed murder victim in tow. Lightcap stops the mob with a speech that reminds them (and viewers) of the greatness of American justice: “What are you doing in a court of law with weapons and ropes … This is your law and your finest possession, and it makes you free men in a free country … Think of a world crying for this very law … We can’t even exist unless we’re willing to go down into the dust and blood and fight a battle every day of our lives to preserve it.” At a time when American soldiers were dying or returning home wounded in great numbers, a soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice taught viewers that protecting a justice system that was the envy of the world was worth the sacrifice.
A lynch mob also sets the stage for another explicit lesson that connects the justice system to the values of American democracy in Young Mr. Lincoln. In this film, future President Abraham Lincoln’s first two clients are the Clay brothers, outsiders who are charged with murdering local neer-do-well Scrub White. The townspeople form a lynch mob and descend on the jail. Lincoln is waiting for them, and he disperses the mob with a folksy speech that reminds the vigilantes that respect for law and justice is part of the American way of life: “I’m just a new lawyer trying to get ahead, but some of you boys seem like you’re trying to do me out of my first clients … Maybe these boys do deserve to hang. But with me handling their case, don’t look like you’ll have much to worry about on that score. All I’m asking is to have it done with some legal pomp … Trouble is, when men start taking the law into their own hands they’re just as apt in all the confusion and fun to start hanging someone who’s not a murderer as someone who is … We do things together that we’d be mighty ashamed to do by ourselves.” And in an earlier scene, Lincoln teaches viewers that the U.S. system of justice is embedded in American democracy when he echoes the language of the Declaration of Independence after reading aloud a passage from a dusty legal treatise: “The right to life, reputation and liberty. Rights to acquire and hold property. Wrongs are violations of those rights. By jing, that’s all there is to it. Right and wrong. Maybe I ought to begin taking this up serious.”
To Kill a Mockingbird provides a final example of a courtroom film that links the justice system to American democracy. As he concludes his summation in defense of Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch reminds the jurors that “[i]n this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system. That’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!” Though Atticus’s words fall on deaf ears inside the courtroom, the true target of his words are the film’s viewers. His closing argument reminds viewers that though Robinson was unjustly convicted, the courts are bastions of fairness and American democracy will live on through its system of justice.
American courtroom films have for decades entertained audiences around the world with often dramatic and sometimes humorous stories that focus on the guilt or innocence of individuals charged with crimes. As this article demonstrates, the courtroom genre as a whole offers lessons about the adversary system and American values that extend far beyond the guilt or innocence of individual defendants. These lessons may be incomplete and inaccurate, but they are the source of what many know or think they know about law, lawyers, and justice.
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(1.) Compulsion (1957), based on the 1924 Leopold and Loeb trial. Though no witnesses are questioned, the film belongs in the criminal courtroom genre based on its depiction of the defense attorney’s argument to the judge against capital punishment.
(2.) The classic American Western film The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) depicts important issues of justice, yet it would not qualify as a criminal courtroom film because the “trial” is conducted by vigilantes and does not take place in a formal courtroom setting.
(5.) The guarantee of due process of law is found in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
(6.) For example, many arrestees in France demanded that police officers precede interrogations with “Miranda warnings.” Such warnings are a constitutionally required prerequisite to the admissibility in evidence at trial of most statements that suspects make to police officers, but they are not a part of French criminal procedure. The suspects’ demands were based on American criminal courtroom films, not French law.
(7.) I am grateful to my friend Chuck Rosenberg for pointing out the distinction between truth and accuracy. Chuck is an entertainment lawyer, an author and a frequent legal advisor to producers of law-related pop culture.
(8.) While judges and jurors may believe that defendants are factually innocent, a “not guilty” verdict means only that the prosecution was unable to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
(9.) The film is based closely on the 1924 prosecution of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb; they were represented by famed attorney Clarence Darrow.
(10.) Loeb died in prison after he was stabbed by another inmate. Leopold was a model prisoner who was released after serving 33 years of his life sentence; the prosecutor wrote a letter in support of his release.
(11.) Decades after it was made and though it is essentially a comedy, Adam’s Rib still stands as one of the strongest images of a female trial attorney ever made.
(12.) The closest analog to Amanda’s invocation of an “unwritten law” is the defense of extreme provocation. But that defense would not apply to Doris’s actions as she knew when she followed Warren to Beryl’s apartment that she would find them together (though not in bed—after all this was the 1940s and Hollywood films had to comply with the Production Code.
(13.) The U.S. Supreme Court majority referred to this quotation in the case of Lilly v. Virginia, 527 U.S. 116 (1999).
(14.) The gun-waving cross-examination in the film is based on an actual courtroom demonstration by Earl Rogers, the famous early 20th-century Los Angeles defense lawyer.
(15.) In an actual case, Vinny as the proferring party would have a chance to demonstrate Mona Lisa’s expertise before the prosecutor had an opportunity to attack her bona fides as an expert.
(16.) Juries are present in all of the films this article describes. In A Few Good Men, involving a military court martial, the jurors are soldiers.
(17.) For more information on jury nullification, see Bergman and Berman, The Criminal Law Handbook 317 (Nolo Press; 14th edition 2016).
(18.) The phrase might be credited to Alexis de Tocqueville, who in Democracy in America (1840, part 2, p. 36) wrote that “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”