If you're looking for a good movie to rent this summer, check out this list of the "25 Greatest Legal Movies" from the August 2008 issue of the ABA Journal. It includes classics like "To Kill a Mockingbird", "My Cousin Vinny", and "Judgment at Nuremberg." The accompanying article makes the valuable point that trial attorneys often face jurors whose perceptions of the legal system have been influenced, in one way or another, by popular culture. Whether based on fact or fiction, these perceptions matter. And the very best legal films, even if they do turn on untenable plot points, offer valuable lessons for litigators. Who couldn't learn a thing or two about style from watching Gregory Peck in "Mockingbird" or Joe Pesci in "My Cousin Vinny"? Not that anyone should ape Peck's gravitas or Pesci's Brooklyn grit, but the marriage of good storytelling and engaging rhetoric that one finds in such classics is a quality worth striving for.
July 14 is a sad date in the annals of American legal history. On that day in 1921, after only five hours of deliberations, a Dedham, Massachusetts jury rendered guilty verdicts against two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, for robbery and murder.
The crimes occurred on April 15, 1920 in South Braintree, Massachusetts, a small town south of Boston. Those responsible shot and killed a guard and a shoe factory paymaster carrying over $15,000 in payroll cash, then made off with the money in a getaway car. Less than a month later, police arrested Sacco and Vanzetti as they were traveling at night on a trolley from Bridgewater to Brockton. Both men were carrying guns when apprehended.
One hundred witnesses testified during the trial. For every eyewitness who identified the defendants as the culprits, another witness swore to the contrary. Many eyewitnesses for the prosecution were exposed as simply mistaken or not testifying truthfully. The defense presented a straightforward alibi. Vanzetti was in Plymouth selling fish. Sacco was in Boston at the Italian consulate obtaining a passport.
The case of Cpl. Richard Scott Findley and Ronnie White in Prince Georges County, Maryland, is heartbreaking and disturbing. While the facts remain somewhat unclear, what we do know is enough to sow painful discord between the citizens of that jurisdiction and their police department for a long time to come. A black man accused of killing a white police officer is murdered while in custody. The fact pattern is familiar, and, predictably, public discussion is focusing a great deal on race, as it usually does when a police brutality case seizes our attention. Race surely matters, but so, too, does a subject rarely mentioned in this cultural context: civic education.
I write this on the eve of July 4, a day to celebrate our independence. It is also a day to celebrate a host of ideas of what it means to be American. A cornerstone of this country's greatness is its faith in due process for all, no matter one's status in society, no matter one's race or creed or country of origin. By all accounts, Findley, the beloved officer who White was accused of killing, was a man with a passion for service and justice. That his death appears to have been avenged with unlawful brutality discredits the PG County police department and causes one to ask whether our law enforcement officers have sufficient reverence for the U.S. Constitution and the criminal justice system.
In truth, the same question should be asked of society as a whole. Americans seem to know precious little about their own public institutions and history. (In 2006 a Zogby poll estimated that more Americans can name the Three Stooges than can name the three branches of our federal government.) For many people, I suspect, justice is a kind of media show, a series of trials-of-the-century spun as morality tales that seldom reveal the complex nature of our criminal justice system or the bedrock principles on which it is based. Cases like the murder of Ronnie White should remind us that American justice is founded on ideas, and unless those ideas are understood, respected and cherished by those charged with enforcing the law, we are continually in danger of losing our way.