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St. Joan
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy
The Shawshank Redemption
Snow Falling on Cedars
A Soldier's Story
The Star Chamber
The Story of Qiu Ju
Sweet Hereafter

St. Joan (1968) (TV)

One of my favorite George Bernard Shaw plays, I could find only one film version of the Shaw play online. (A film called The Messenger, about the life of Joan of Arc, is below on my "B" list, not for its quality but because it doesn't focus on her trial as much as on the bloody battles that preceded it.) With John Gielgud as the Inquisitor, this made-for-TV movie shows how the powerful can take the words of a principled young woman and twist them so she ends up the author of her own death. Worth watching just for the examinations and cross-examinations.

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Scottsboro:  An American Tragedy (2000)

Directed by Daniel Anker and Barak Goodman, written by Goodman, this excellent, Oscar-nominated documentary examines one of the most racist trials in U.S. history. (And also one of the longest and the most legally convoluted). As Douglas O. Linder puts it on his site, Famous American Trials:

No crime in American history - let alone a crime that never occurred - produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, and retrials as did an alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenagers on a Southern Railroad freight run in 1931. Over the course of the two decades that followed, the struggle for justice for the 'Scottsboro Boys,' as the black teens were called, made celebrities out of anonymities, launched and ended careers, wasted lives, produced heroes, opened southern juries to blacks, exacerbated sectional strife, and divided America's political left.

See www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/FTrials/scottsboro/scottsb.htm for a detailed legal history.

Nine black defendants (Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charles Weems, Eugene Williams, and Andy and Roy Wright), aged 12 to 20, were accused of raping two white girls on a train, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. Between 1931 and 1937, they were tried several times, and each saw their case ruled on twice by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I have a personal interest in the Scottsboro trials, since it is possible that I am distantly related to the lead defense lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, who pursued the case, in his words, "to hell and back." But Samuel Leibowitz, a Cornell Law School graduate, was the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, and my family is from Poland and Russia, and I went to Stanford Law. Still, I can dream. According to Linder's excellent site, Leibowitz was a New York criminal attorney who had accumulated an astounding record of seventy-seven acquittals and one hung jury in seventy-eight murder trials when he was retained, pro bono, to defend the Scottsboro Boys.

 In their first trial in 1931, all the defendants except 12-year-old Roy Wright were convicted and sentenced to death. (It was the first time in fifteen years that Samuel Leibowitz had lost a case.) But Leibowitz argued that there were no blacks on any of the jury rolls of the county, thus depriving his clients of a jury of their peers. He brought this issue to the Supreme Court of the United States, which agreed, in Norris v. Alabama, that the absence of black jury members had deprived Norris of the equal protection under the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The trials were sent back to the Alabama courts. During the second trial, one of the alleged rape victims, Bates, recanted her testimony, saying that she and Price had made up the rape story to avoid arrest on morals and vagrancy charges. The defendants, she testified, never touched her. The jury convicted again.

 In January, 1932, the Alabama Supreme Court, by a 6 - 1 vote, affirmed all but one of the eight convictions and death sentences. (The court ruled that Eugene Williams, age thirteen, should have not been tried as an adult.) The cases were again appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which overturned the convictions in the landmark case of Powell vs Alabama. The Court ruled, 7-2, that the right of the defendants under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause to competent legal counsel had been denied by Alabama. New trials were ordered.

Prejudice infected many aspects of the trial, from North/South to black/white, left/right (the Communist Party funded the defense) and Jewish/Christian. Wade Wright, Solicitor of Morgan County, asked the jurors in his summation if "justice in this case is going to be bought and sold with Jew money from New York?"

Douglas Linder emphasizes that there were "good people of the South" --- newspaper editors, attorneys, ministers, and one honest judge, James Horton, who set aside a conviction and death sentence and lost his office because of it. These people fought for justice for the Scottsboro Boys. I agree that it is important to remember and honor these people, but they were far outnumbered by people who, even today, would infect the justice system with their prejudices, I fear, unless all the safeguards that defendants are guaranteed in our system are upheld.

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The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Written and directed by Frank Darabont, based on a story by Stephen King, this film, set in the 1940s, traces the life of banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who is wrongly convicted of the murder of his wife. He ends up in Shawshank Prison, where he is befriended by "Red," played by Morgan Freeman. (In the short story, the man is Irish and nothing was changed even after Morgan Freeman was cast - a mistake, I think). The film shows the toll the prison system takes over the years, but also how it enables some of the inmates to rebuild themselves: the prison library is the life raft that keeps many inmates' spirits afloat. It was interesting that the protagonist, wrongly convicted of murder, is able to help the prison warden to break the tax laws. (Some laws are made to be broken, but because they are usually broken or bent by wealthier people, that's OK). Some of the scenes that I enjoyed most dealt with the parole requests. We have to wonder, at every parole hearing, at every plea for clemency: Can a person change that much? Is he the "same" man who went to prison? Our criminal justice system is of course based on the premise that people can and do change, even (or perhaps especially) in prison.

Filmed at a defunct prison, the Mansfield State Penitentiary in Ohio, the Internet Movie Database writes that, "The prison was in such poor condition that renovations had to be made prior to filming." There is more wonderful trivia about this moving film at IMDb, at www.imdb.com/title/tt0111161/trivia.

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Skokie (1981) (TV)

I have not seen this film, but I will never forget the efforts of the Nazis in the 1970s to march through a community called Skokie, outside Chicago, whose residents were mainly Jewish, and some of them Holocaust survivors. The debates about what to do - ignore the marchers, hold a countermarch, write, or even violently agitate - consumed the Jewish community nationwide. This movie focuses on one survivor, played by Danny Kaye, who decides to take action. The rest of the film, I assume, delineates the legal arguments made in court by the ACLU, which supported the rights of the Nazis to march; and the moral arguments facing the community, including the mayor and the law enforcement officials, as people had to decide what action to take. To this day, people say "Skokie" and think of the Nazis' planned march. With Danny Kaye, Carl Reiner, Kim Hunter, Eli Wallach, and Brian Denney as the police chief.

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Snow Falling on Cedars (2000)

This was a beautiful novel by David Guterson. I haven't seen the film. It is interesting to note to what extent courtrooms are, have been, and always will be used as classrooms to review, teach and revise history. This account focuses on a court case examining a WWII atrocity.

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Sommersby (1993)

Based on the beautiful French film, The Return of Martin Guerre (an early case of identity theft), this 1993 movie by director Jon Amiel sets the medieval French story in post-Civil War Tennessee, in a town suffering the effects of the South's loss. Jodie Foster plays a widow whose husband never returned from the Civil War. Then one day, a man calling himself Jack Sommersby (Richard Gere) appears at her doorstep. I enjoyed the fact that Foster is not as fooled by the imposter as her French counterpart was, or pretended to be. (Yes, men change greatly during war, but rarely for the better.) This film deals with the nuts and bolts of rebuilding the town after the war, and also bravely tackles race relations --- one of the most powerful performances is by James Earl Jones, who plays a black judge. Perhaps because the focus is so diffuse, and the romance between Foster and Gere so intense, the trial is not the only climax of the film, as it was in Martin Guerre. You're drawn into many aspects of the life of the village, and left wondering whether a trial and conviction is really the best way to administer justice in all cases.

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The Star Chamber (1983)

A group of judges, exasperated when guilty people go free on technicalities, convene a "star chamber," a secret proceeding to administer rough justice. Directed by Peter Hyams, this movie raises important issues, but doesn't deal with how convictions can and should be brought within the law. An average episode of Law and Order raises similar issues ("You mean our search warrant for the house doesn't allow us to search the trash cans outside the house?") In the end, the police really can get the guilty and follow the law, even if they mess up and lose some motions. There are actually very few cases where violent criminals go free because of these technicalities, though movies like this help promote the idea that it happens more often than it really does. Also, there are fewer car chases and gunfights in real life than in this movie. Oh, well. A wonderful cast that includes Michael Douglas, Hal Holbrook, and Sharon Gless does its best with the material.

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The Story of Qiu Ju (1992)

Drama set in rural China about a woman (Gong Li) seeking a formal apology for an assault on her husband. Her indomitable spirit and refusal to be cowed by petty bureaucracy and offers of financial compensation in lieu of admission of guilt eventually take her on a journey through the entire Chinese legal system. For Westerners, Zhang Yimou's film provides a fascinating insight into a legal process which is very different from our own --- notably its reliance on the notion of "face", the saving or losing of which can be as important as anything backed by hard evidence. (Summary written by Michael Brooke. Many thanks!)

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Suspect (1987)

This is an excellent, suspenseful drama in which Cher portrays an impatient, tough, intelligent, and burned-out public defender in Washington, D.C. whose client is a mute, homeless Vietnam veteran (Liam Neeson) accused of murder. Dennis Quaid plays a juror who would rather be lobbying Congress on dairy issues but who gets caught up in the inconsistencies of the case. The acting is superb --- Cher reminded me of quite a few zealous, workaholic legal aid attorneys I've known. And it's SO convenient when a juror uncovers evidence of innocence and contacts the defense attorney during the case. Convenient, but illegal. Still, suspend your disbelief to follow the strong, compelling plot of this movie, set in my hometown of Washington, D.C.

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The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

I haven't seen this film. The Internet Movie Database states: "Written and Directed by Atom Egoyan.… Following a tragic schoolbus accident, a high-profile lawyer Mitchell Stephens descends upon a small town. With promises of retribution and a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the grieving community, Stephens begins his investigation into the details of the crash. But beneath the town's calm, he uncovers a tangled web of lies, deceit, and forbidden desires that mirror his own troubled personal life. Gradually, we learn that Stephens has his own agenda, and that everyone has secrets to keep."

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