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Thanks to Message, Lawyers Forgive Film’s Distortions

In “True Believer,” a courtroom drama playing in movie theaters around the country, defense attorney Eddie Dodd (James Woods) makes a last-ditch effort to save his innocent client by breaking into the home of a key witness and forcing him to divulge crucial evidence on the eve of closing arguments.

Although the scene effectively heightens tension in audiences, it is hardly true to life, according to several prominent criminal defense attorneys practicing here.

“Ninety-five percent of the time, all your favorable evidence is going to be found before the beginning of the trial, and usually your investigator is going to find it,” San Diego defense attorney Robert Grimes said.

“The lawyer is not going to be running around in the middle of the night interviewing neo-Nazis” as Dodd does in the film, said Grimes, who defended former California Highway Patrol Officer Craig Peyer against charges of murdering college student Cara Knott.

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Even the most entertaining courtroom dramas usually fail to accurately depict legal scenarios, the defense attorneys agree. But the effect of so-called “lawyer movies” on public perception of the profession turns more on the overall message they offer than the accuracy of the legal maneuvers they depict.

“True Believer,” the story of a histrionic, pot-smoking defense attorney who recovers his ‘60s idealism while defending an Asian wrongly convicted of murder, commits a variety of legal gaffes, according to real-life practitioners. Judges rarely allow attorneys to lean into the jury box, as Eddie Dodd frequently does in the movie, the lawyers said. Nor do they usually let lawyers approach the witness stand. And it doesn’t take a law degree, or even a trip to traffic court, to realize that the film’s Perry Mason-style ending is a screenwriter’s fantasy.

But those inaccuracies fade in the light of the positive message the movie sends about criminal defenders, attorney Elisabeth Semel said.

“Because the times are so anti-crime, so pro-prosecution, it’s difficult to find a heroic portrayal of a defense lawyer,” she said. “It’s important what is being said about people who defend people accused of crime. Are these heroic and courageous champions or weak and flawed human beings? We’re really losing a sense of the fact that defense attorneys are really the champions of everybody’s liberties.”

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Although “True Believer,” based on the life of renegade San Francisco attorney J. Tony Serra, portrays criminal defenders as heroes, movies just as often cast a pall on the profession.

Semel mentioned “Suspect” and “Jagged Edge” as films that are not only grossly inaccurate but perpetuate the worst myths about women attorneys--particularly women defense attorneys.

In “Suspect,” Cher plays a passionate public defender who has an affair with a manipulative juror during trial. In “Jagged Edge,” Glenn Close allows herself to be seduced by her manipulative--and secretly guilty--client.

Inventing improbable liaisons between a defender and juror or client is a grossly unethical way of advancing a movie’s plot, Semel said.

“You have to be so conscious of the social messages you are sending out. And the notion that a woman lawyer would sleep with a juror is pretty negative.”

Rather than capitalizing on female strengths such as compassion and concern, these films portray women as weak people who whine, cry and forgo ethics for love, Semel said.

“The flaws are not just human flaws, but stereotypically female flaws,” she said. “It’s when you have lawyers doing things that stretch the truth or are so unethical, that’s when I have a problem.”

Unfortunately, she said, the only movie she could think of that features a heroic female defense attorney is “Adam’s Rib,” starring Katharine Hepburn. It was released in 1949.

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Defense attorneys may be even more sensitized to negative public perception than attorneys as a whole. Perhaps because Americans have become so anti-crime, as Semel noted, a positive fictional portrayal of their work becomes that much more important.

Like Semel, attorney Milton Silverman believes that inaccurate, overly dramatic courtroom scenes can be overcome by a film’s message. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example, Hollywood successfully depicts the anguish of criminal defense work, he said.

“It was a reflection more of the attitudes of society and the cost of defending some unpopular person rather than a purely legal exercise. That’s perhaps what distinguishes the good stories from the lesser tales,” said Silverman, who successfully defended Sagon Penn against charges that he willfully murdered a San Diego police officer.

Like the participants in many courtroom dramas, Silverman at times defended Penn flamboyantly, once lying down on the courtroom floor to impress the jurors. Although some attorneys maintain that trials are rarely as exciting as they appear on the screen, Silverman believes the county courthouse is often more rife with drama than any script.

“ ‘Suspect’ was total Hollywood,” he said. “It was unrealistic. The real tragedy in all this is that, if they would just go get a few real cases and tell them honestly, they would be far more realistic than anything they could devise.”

One such example is a scene in the comedy-mystery “Legal Eagles,” borrowed from a famous opening statement given by nationally renowned attorney Gerry Spence. A prosecutor-turned-defender, played by Robert Redford, gets jurors to admit they think his client is guilty before the trial has even begun. Then, in an inspiring discourse on individual rights, he goes on to persuade them that the alleged murderer deserves a fair trial--and that he believes they will give the accused that right.

“Lawyers do express emotion in trials, and they do express it vehemently,” former defense attorney David S. Casey Jr. said. “Lawyers have been known to cry for their clients, because they are stepping into their shoes when they defend them.”

Grimes said he is put off by some of the facial gestures used by actors to punctuate points. In “True Believer,” he said, “the attorneys smirked when they made a good point, and looked depressed when the witness said something that was bad for their client. In a real trial, they wouldn’t have used such dramatic facial expressions.”

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Any movie-goer familiar with San Diego’s legal community can’t help but notice that Alex Landon is a near-ringer for James Woods’ Eddie Dodd. Landon is the former director of Community Defenders Inc., a nonprofit group that provided legal aid for the county’s poor.

Both the real and fictional characters wear their long hair in ponytails, live modestly and seem interested in the personal satisfaction of their work rather than its income. But, although Dodd lost his idealism and had to find it again, Landon has never wavered from his “commitment to protect individual rights and individual liberties,” Grimes said.

“Those ideals all fit Alex perfectly,” he said.

Landon, who has yet to see the film, acknowledged that several colleagues have compared him to the character. But he is hesitant to align himself with the firebrand defender. “All I know is that we both wear ponytails.”

“True Believer” ultimately casts a sorely needed glow on the entire legal profession, according to Casey, now a civil practitioner.

“I think the public feels lawyers are counterproductive and no longer part of the solution anymore,” he said. “And I think a lot of that is an appearance problem. . . . Lawyers do good things, but they are often not reported.”

Casey said the movie comes at a time when the American Bar Assn. is reexamining its values.

“They feel they have a bad public image,” he said. “ ‘True Believer’ suggests lawyers should reexamine what they are doing and get back in touch with why they’re doing it.”


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