Law lessons from the movie makers: Anatomy of a murder (1959) – Prof. Penny Cooper

If I had to describe this movie in a word it would be ‘class’. It has a blissful Duke Ellington soundtrack, sleek cars and James Stewart playing Paul Biegler, the semi-retired former District Attorney (DA). Biegler loves fly fishing but has the litigator’s Achilles heel – he just can’t resist the challenge of another big case. His new client is a US Army Lieutenant who does not deny killing a local bar owner but says he did it after discovering his wife had been raped by him. The lieutenant’s lonely and attractive wife Laura soon begins flirting with Biegler who wisely tells her to ‘save that jiggle for your husband’ and to dress less provocatively for the trial.

Even though the lead prosecutor, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) is sharp and far cooler than a cucumber, he is no match for Biegler who, for the benefit of the jury, plays a ‘good ole boy’ up against city slickers. However in the judge’s chambers Biegler, who knows his procedural rules inside out, out manoeuvres the Assistant DA over the request for another psychiatric examination of the defendant.

Notice the prosecutor’s courtroom trick as he stands in Biegler’s line of sight while he demolishes Laura in cross-examination. Biegler complains that he has never seen anything so shabby, the prosecutor tells him he hasn’t lived. Of course advocates in this jurisdiction have to stay put and we don’t see them bearing down on witnesses, but they do needle each other and find other ways to distract their opponents.

Biegler’s cross-examination is equally good and when the bar tender is recalled to the stand, evidence that seemed cut and dried is shown in a whole new perspective. I am reminded of Lord Sumption’s advice to advocates: be ‘fact sensitive’ and make sure that the judge can’t ever be sure at the beginning of your sentences how they are going to end. Biegler ably demonstrates that advice in practice.

A recurring ethical theme in this movie is ‘wood-shedding’ – the mythical wood shed is where US litigators would take their witnesses to tell them what to say. We call it coaching. (We know what our Court of Appeal thinks about coaching – see R v Momodou, [2005] EWCA Crim 177. The codes of conduct clearly prohibit practising, rehearsing or coaching witnesses.) Does Biegler over step the mark when he tells his client the possible defences to murder? What about when his client says he must have been ‘mad’ in the temporarily insane rather than angry sense and Biegler lets him know he is getting warmer? Yes Biegler captivates the courtroom but he is no saint. As he himself says, ‘people aren’t just good or bad, they are many things’.

The mark of great advocates is not just what they say in court, it is what they say to their clients when no one else is listening. The client on the other hand is not obliged to be so straightforward.

Penny specialises in witness evidence and never ceases to be fascinated by anything to do with the courtroom. She carries out research into witness issues and teaches judges and barristers about witness handling methods. As often as possible she likes to get a good DVD, a big bag of popcorn and hold a family film festival.

© Penny Cooper, 18 November 2012

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