Law & Pop Culture
I. Introduction to Law and Pop Culture
A. Witness for the Prosecution
1. Story: Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), a master barrister in ill health, takes Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) on as a client, over the protestations of his private nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), that the doctor had told him to stay away from criminal cases. Vole is accused of murdering Mrs. French (Norma Varden), a rich, older woman who had become enamored of him, going so far as to make him the main beneficiary of her will. Strong circumstantial evidence all points to Vole as the killer. When Sir Wilfrid speaks with Vole’s German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), he finds her rather cold and self-possessed, but she does provide an alibi. Therefore, he is greatly surprised when she is unexpectedly called as a witness for the prosecution. While a wife cannot testify against her husband, it is shown that Christine was in fact still married to another man when she wed Leonard. On the stand, she testifies that Leonard admitted to her that he had killed Mrs. French, and that her conscience forced her to finally tell the truth. During the trial, Sir Wilfrid is contacted by a mysterious woman, who (for a fee) provides him with letters written by Christine to a mysterious lover named Max. This correspondence gives her such a strong motive to lie that the jury finds Leonard innocent. However, Sir Wilfrid is troubled, not elated, by the verdict. His instincts tell him that it was too tidy, too neat. And so it proves. By chance, he and Christine are left alone in the courtroom. She takes the opportunity to take credit for the whole thing. When she heard him say at the beginning that a wife’s testimony would not be convincing, she decided to set it up so that hers would be for the prosecution and then be discredited. An ex-actress, she had played the part of the mystery woman so well that Sir Wilfrid did not recognize her when he negotiated for the letters. She knew that Leonard was guilty; her testimony was actually the truth. Her letters are a fraud — Max never existed. When asked why she did it, she confesses that she loves Leonard. Leonard appears and, now protected by double jeopardy, nonchalantly confirms what Christine had said. A young woman (Ruta Lee) then rushes into his arms. When he admits that they are going away together, Christine kills him with a knife in a fit of fury. Miss Plimsoll then cancels Sir Wilfrid’s holiday, realizing that he can’t resist taking charge of Christine’s defense.
2. Legal Analysis: Heresay rule – the housekeeper overhears his conversation with Mrs. French – but this is allowable because it confirms he was in the house, not because of what he said to Mrs. French.
B. Heroes or Villains? Moral Struggles v. Ethical Dilemmas
1. Effect of the media on public perception of the legal profession: “Studies have revealed that the average American watches
arthy hearings and the abuses of civil and personal rights… However, in contrast, there has been an amazing “absence of prosecutor ‘heroes’ over the last several decades.”
II. Lawyers as Heroes
A. To Kill A Mockingbird
1. Synapsis: Atticus Finch, an idealistic and deeply principled southern white attorney, defends an innocent black man in a hopeless rape case in 1930s Alabama.
2. Legal Analysis: Atticus Finch is an iconic lawyer hero. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose by assaulting the entrenched social order. He puts himself in physical peril not only by taking the case but by guarding the door at the prison against the lynch-mob. Portrayed as a deeply moral man, and a caring father, Finch explains to Scout that if he had refused to defend Robinson he could never hold his head up or advise her on how to live.
a. Trial Strategy: Tom Robinson’s defense is probably doomed from the start. However, a trial attorney can’t just give up and must employ trial strategies to give them a shot at justice. What could Finch have done differently in reality?
i. Change of venue
Plea bargain/lesser included offense