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Murder, Movies and the Law

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We are at it again – working on one of our posts about movies and the law.  This time we are looking at movies which depict murder trials.  Although posts about movies and the law might seem somewhat lighthearted, movies are a powerful cultural force which often reflect society’s attitudes and understanding of various ideas.

To kick off our selection, I would like to begin with one of my favorites, Jagged Edge.  This 1985 thriller features Glenn Close as former California Criminal District Attorney, Teddie Barnes.  She decides to take the case of Jack Forrester who is accused of murdering his wife.  Barnes is motivated to take the case because of her history with the prosecutor and her knowledge of his previous unethical behavior.  There are a number of courtroom scenes in this movie, particularly those with Barnes examining and cross examining witnesses.  Although Barnes had insisted Forrester take a lie detector test before she takes the case, her belief in his innocence waivers during the trial even though they have become romantically entangled.  During the trial, the prosecutor runs into trouble when it is revealed he suppressed information about a similar crime during the discovery phase of the case and Forrester is eventually found not guilty.  The movie does not end there, but to avoid spoilers, I will only say the final scenes are spine tingling.

Another favorite of mine from the same time period, is the 1987 movie, Suspect.  The movie begins with the suicide of a U.S. Supreme Court justice and the seemingly unrelated, murder of a clerk in the U.S. Department of Justice.  A deaf-mute Vietnam veteran is accused of the murder and assigned Public Defender Kathleen Riley, played by Cher.   During the course of the trial, Riley with the help of one of the jurors played by Dennis Quaid, begins to suspect that murder victim had uncovered evidence of case fixing.  Of course by working with one of the jurors, Riley is involved in jury tampering – albeit in a rather unusual way.  The judge begins to suspect this and threatens Riley with disbarment.  There are a number of courtroom scenes in this movie, including the examination of the defendant, but the best scene to my mind is the movie’s denouement when Riley calls upon the presiding judge to testify, accusing him of being the murderer.  This scene is well played and enjoyable but highly improbable though the  judge does try to have Ms. Riley removed from the courtroom on charges of contempt.

Barbara suggested a more recent movie, Fracture.  This film revolves around an ambitious California district attorney and a defendant who has attempted to murder his wife.  The defendant played by Anthony Hopkins confesses to the attempt and then chooses to represent himself in court.  During the trial, a number of facts come to light including the fact that the arresting officer, who took down the confession, was having an affair with the victim.  The confession is then ruled as inadmissible as it is fruit of a poisonous tree.  This doctrine was established in the 1920 United States Supreme Court case Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385.   Lacking any direct physical evidence, and no confession, the defendant is acquitted.  After the acquittal he has his wife removed from life support and she dies.  The disgraced D.A. manages to piece together a rather confusing plot involving the guns used in the crime and confronts the defendant who again confesses, believing himself to be protected under the double jeopardy doctrine which prevents anyone being prosecuted for the same crime twice.  The movie posits that the original charge was for attempted murder and the second arrest is for murder and thus double jeopardy does not apply – evoking the standard developed in Blockburger v. United States, 284 U.S. 299 (1932).

"Woman are too sentimental for jury duty" --Anti-Suffrage argument
“Woman are too sentimental for jury duty” — Anti-Suffrage argument. Created by Kenneth Russell Chamberlain.

Various colleagues suggest two classic murder and law movies: 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution12 Angry Men is interesting because it focuses on jury deliberations and does not depict the trial itself – only the judge’s jury instructions.  The jury’s discussion focuses on, among other issues, witness’ reliability.  I find the movie interesting because it is “12 men,” – no women allowed.  Since the 19th century states had variously granted women the right to be in a jury pool but many states  had exemptions and required women to register specifically for jury duty.  In the 1961 case Hoyt v. Florida 368 U.S. 57, the U.S. Supreme Court had unanimously affirmed a Florida statute which required women to register for jury duty, noting that “[d]espite the enlightened emancipation of women from the restrictions [368 U.S. 57, 62] and protections of bygone years, and their entry into many parts of community life formerly considered to be reserved to men, woman is still regarded as the center of home and family life.”  This decision was not reversed until the 1975 U.S. Supreme Court decision Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522 in which the court ruled the exclusion of women from the jury pool was impermissible.

Witness for the Prosecution is based on an Agatha Christie play and has been dramatized several times.  The classic 1957 film, directed by Billy Wilder, takes place in London’s Old Bailey Criminal Court.  The defendant is accused of murdering a wealthy older woman but his wife seems to provide an alibi.  In an unexpected twist, the wife is called as a witness for the prosecution – under the English common law doctrine of marital privilege spouses cannot testify against each other.  However, the wife reveals that she and the defendant are not really married – she is actually married to someone else.  She testifies against her erstwhile husband but inadvertently reveals she herself had motive for the murder which leads to the defendant’s acquittal.  However after the conclusion of the trial, she confesses that she had invented the entire story precisely so that she could testify and create doubt about her husband’s guilt – he is, in fact, guilty.  Despite appearing to have gotten away with murder, the husband and wife quarrel as he plans to leave her for another woman and she stabs him to death in the courtroom – thereby proving the truth will out.

Our final pick is for the movie which had inspired the idea for this post, Anatomy of a Murder.  This movie by Otto Preminger, along with 12 Angry Men, is on the National Film Registry which is maintained by the Library of Congress.  Our colleague, Jennifer Davis, had suggested this movie in part because much of the music for the film was created by Duke Ellington, who was born on April 29, 1899.  The movie, which is based on a book written by a judge, depicts all the stages of a criminal case, from the arraignment through the trial and has been highly praised for correctly depicting criminal procedure.  Interestingly enough, the judge in the film is played by Joseph N. Welch, who had been the attorney for the U.S. Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.  The movie has recently been running on a local television channel and I keep tuning in to the same scene where Jimmy Stewart, the defendant’s lawyer, proclaims, “I’m just a humble country lawyer trying to do the best I can against this brilliant prosecutor from the big city of Lansing..”  It is enough to get me hooked on this courtroom drama.

Comments (5)

  1. I know “To Killl a Mockingbird” doesn’t focus on the courtroom proceedings as much as the above, but Atticus Finch is still one of the more outstanding attorneys ever portrayed on film. Thanks again for another thoroughly enjoyable article.

  2. Oops, I think your link into ImDB for Anatomy of a Murder, goes to Witness for the Prosecution!
    Both great; good post Georgetown did a Law at the Movies series including Anatomy.

    • Thanks for the correction.

  3. A Time to Kill (1996, IMDb tt0117913), based on John Grisham’s novel, focuses on the murder trial of a man who killed his daughter’s rapists. I can still remember the end of the defense attorney’s closing argument.

  4. Thanks for this great article! I’m doing a project on courtroom dramas for my film studies class; What do you consider to be the first courtroom drama film ever made?

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