Courtrooms are the perfect setting for fantastic drama. In addition to being great entertainment, good legal movies help non-lawyers understand basic tenets of courtroom procedure. As much as excellent movies foster appreciation for the courts - bad movies leave people with absurd expectations of the legal system. They are excruciating for lawyers to watch. Bad legal movies affect the real world. Clients and their families really do ask their attorneys to use hilarious Hollywood plot twists as trial strategy. I haven't seen every movie but here is my list of the 5 worst:
5. Double Jeopardy (1999) staring Ashley Judd. A man fakes his own death and implicates his wife (Ashley Judd) who then gets convicted of murder. In jail, Ashley Judd gets legal advice from a fellow inmate who claims to be a lawyer. The jailhouse barrister opines that double jeopardy prevents Judd from being convicted of killing her husband for real. Accordingly, every wrongfully accused person in this prison now has immunity from actually finishing the deal and committing their crime. Judd believes this and upon release endeavors to kill her husband.
Pretty funny. Double jeopardy doesn't work that way. Real double jeopardy prevents a person from being tried for the same crime twice. If the two supposed murders from the movie didn't take place at the same time and place, they're not the same crime. The government can absolutely prosecute Ashley Judd if she kills her husband at a time and place different than the one alleged in the first trial. If this were not the case, a man could slap his wife on his wedding day and then have impunity to commit domestic violence for the duration of his marriage. That hypothesis is stupid. Getting legal advice from an inmate is stupid. The premise of this movie is stupid.
4. The Untouchables (1987) DeNiro and Costner. This is a great movie but the courtroom scene is absurd. During a high profile trial of Al Capone, detective Elliot Ness figures out that Capone has rigged the jury. Ness convinces (blackmails) the judge to bring in a new jury after the trial started. THEN Capone's lawyer changes his clients plea without his client's permission. The lawyer just stands up and says his client is guilty.
First, a judge cannot usurp the dire jury selection process by unilaterally choosing a jury. Criminal defendants do not have a right to be tried by a panel of prepaid jurors but they do have a right to question potential jurors to ensure that the panel is impartial. Next, a lawyer cannot enter a plea against a client's desire. With every guilty plea, the judge will extensively question the Defendant to make sure the plea is sincere, knowing and voluntary. A lawyer cannot take that right away from his client. The only realistic part of The Untouchables courtroom scene is that the client (Capone) punches his backstabbing lawyer in the face after changing the plea.
3. Body of Evidence (1993) Madonna- Willem Dafoe. In the film Madonna's millionaire boyfriend is found naked, dead, and handcuffed to a bed. Police also find a sex tape, cocaine in his system, and a will that leaves $8 million to Madonna. Authorities arrest Madonna and a trial commences in which she is accused of using overly intense sexual excitement to kill her boyfriend. The prosecutor says her body "is the murder weapon." Madonna's lawyer (Dafoe) takes the case because he thinks his client is innocent and sexy. Finally, Madonna testifies. On the stand, she brags about having sex with: (1) the victim, (2) other witnesses in the case, and (3) some of the prosecutor's friends. At the conclusion of her testimony, Madonna convinces a man in the back of the courtroom to stand up and up and acknowledge that he is bisexual. The jury acquits her.
The movie is so bad it's fun to watch. The courtroom scenes obliterate the rules of evidence. No criminal Defendant in a real murder trial takes the stand and flirts her way to innocence. Second, the idea of murder charges due to excitement caused by consensual sex is crazy. There have been cases of criminal charges when one sex partner inflicts a sado-masochistic injury on another and the movie does add a poisoning element that could be the basis of a crime but the "body as a murder weapon" would be impossible to prosecute. A mutual decision to engage in a natural and legal activity could not impute that the Defendant had the malice required for a murder conviction- a ridiculous premise that unintentionally turns the movie into a comedy.
2. The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989 made for TV) Lou Ferrigno - The hero/Hulk is wandering around when he gets arrested for an attempted murder he didn't commit. The Hero's lawyer is Daredevil a fellow superhero and blind vigilante that practices law during the day and fights crime at night. While incarcerated, the hero dreams about his trial. In this dream, during an annoying cross-examination he does what most criminal defendants wish they could - he turns into the Hulk, beats the crap out of courtroom deputies, strangles the prosecutor, destroys the courtroom and leaves out of a hole in the wall.
The superpowers aren't the only silly thing here. Midway through the criminal process, the alleged victim in the assault case recants her accusation and disappears. This is normally great news for a defense attorney. A prosecution has severe problems proving any assault crime in which the victim does not testify. Most assault cases are dismissed without trial if the victim doesn't show up for court. (Not to mention the lawyer/Daredevil should have recused himself as attorney and served as a witness to the victim's recantation.) Here, the Hero's lawyers treat this as a bad thing. They berate the poor innocent client and mock him for expecting things to go well after learning this news. They insist that he must go to trial
and testify. It's no wonder that he gets so outraged with the process that he turns into the Hulk at trial. When the hero/suspect escapes from jail, the court just gives up and never prosecutes anybody for the crime. The courtroom scene is worse than what you would expect from a comic book.
1. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (2009) - Michael Douglas - Douglas is a prosecutor that uses last minute DNA evidence to obtain an undefeated record in a string of murder trials. A reporter suspects that Douglas has been tampering with evidence to secure the convictions. The reporter decides to fake evidence and frame himself for a murder hoping Douglas will plant DNA evidence. The reporter's plan is to go to trial for a murder and then exonerate himself. The plan partially works but the plot takes a series of improbable twists. First, the reporter is tried for murder. In the middle of the trial, Douglas plants evidence. He calls a witness that testifies that the state forgot to test for DNA, remembered during the trial and then introduces DNA evidence that the victim's blood was on the Reporter's pants. The reporter is convicted. Later, Douglass is exposed as unethical and the court declares all Douglas' convictions to be mistrials, including the reporter's case. Finally, the reporter reveals that he actually did commit the murder at issue. In the last scene the reporter is arrested again for the murder.
Prosecutors can fix a lot of holes in their case mid-trial but forgetting to test for DNA isn't one of them. DNA and scientific evidence don't pop up during and get admitted. First, in the movie the forensic tech witness that found the evidence claims to have overlooked a blood stain and then rectified that problem by personally testing that stain for DNA results during trial. In the real world at least three different people would have done that one job. A person trained to collect evidence usually takes that item to a separate laboratory for analysis by a scientist trained to compare DNA samples.
Additionally, courts require prosecutors to give pre-trial notice (in Virginia 21 days) of their intent to use DNA. Part of the reason for this requirement is that like in this movie, people would feel scientific evidence was a scam if the government claimed to find it at the last minute and an accused did not have sufficient time test the reliability of the results. Michael Douglas' last minute DNA move would cause any passionate defense lawyer to demand and almost certainly receive a declaration of mistrial.
CONCLUSION: Trial lawyers are trained to observe analyze and process information through their experience and legal acumen. We have to listen to judges, opposing counsel and witnesses waiting to object at a moment's notice to inappropriate material. Unfortunately we can forget to turn that programming off when we are watching movies. It's not a big deal or even a surprise that these movies aren't realistic. The surprise is that so many people do believe what they see in the movies. People don't watch medical dramas and assume they understand surgery. For some reason it is different with the law. People presume that after a few movies and episodes of Dateline, they are qualified experts in courtroom procedure.
Non-lawyers can and should learn about the legal system. You do not have to go to law school to know your basic rights. Movies however aren't an ideal source of education. if someone wants to learn about the law, the best method is to go observe an actual court. It's free and it's real.