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Some Blockbusters And Their Legal Bloopers


Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2002

As a lawyer, I have to ask: Why does Hollywood teach its viewers that the law is an ass, and its practitioners are...well, incompetent?

Think about it: How many big budget movies' plot twists are driven by the need to circumvent a legal system that is irrationally complicated or, worse, completely incapable of serving its basic purpose of seeking the truth? In real life the law may be complex and sometimes frustrating, but it's not this bad.

Even when cops, prosecutors, and defense attorneys are celebrated central characters in crime dramas, the legal system is distorted beyond recognition to fit the plot. And things like common sense don't make the director's cut, leaving viewers wondering if the law can possibly really be that way.

Fortunately, what you see on the screen is not really the law--more like the law under heavy make-up and a three-picture deal.

"Changing Lanes"? More Like Changing the Law Beyond Recognition

Because Affleck cannot produce the original, he's likely to lose his law license and end up in jail. A victim of this perverse legal logic, he contemplates attaching an original signature from another legal document signed by the client to save his hide.

Of course, this is not the law, or every lawyer who has ever mislaid a document (myself and everyone else) would be in jail now, or at least disbarred. In the movie, no one--least of all Affleck--bothers to check the rules of evidence on whether a copy is admissible in court under circumstances in which a lawyer does not willfully destroy, but rather innocently loses, the original. In real life, a copy would do just fine, and in fact, all parties and the judge would have been given a copy long before Affleck walked into court and found he'd lost the original.

What's more, the movie mocks its own logic. No one, not even the granddaughter, disputes that the old man signed the document. In fact, she alleges that he was unfairly pressured into signing it. The signature is not the issue; the pressure is.

Why does the film spend so much energy chasing down the original? Basically, because the plot demanded the legal equivalent of a missing bag of cash--and a missing original document must have seemed like a good substitute. Thanks to the film, lots of viewers now believe--despite everything the computer age has taught them--that an original signature is all that.

"Double Jeopardy": Ashley Judd Gets Some Very Bad Legal Advice

Even well-known legal principles can't escape unmolested. In "Double Jeopardy," Ashley Judd faces off against her death-faking, child-stealing husband. She's wrongfully convicted of murdering him, and upon release from jail, chases him across the United States, hunting him down at last in Louisiana. The whole time, Judd's character is under the impression--which no one corrects--that she has a license to kill.

As she brandishes her gun at her cornered prey, she tells the scoundrel that because she's already been convicted of his murder, she can kill him again and the law can't touch her. That's what "double jeopardy" means, isn't it? You can't be sentenced twice for the same offense. Even Tommy Lee Jones, playing a sympathetic law professor pipes up in agreement that she's got the concept of "double jeopardy" down cold.

The truth is that double jeopardy doesn't apply when the prosecuting sovereign is different; Louisiana could still go after Judd for a murder even if another state prosecuted her for killing the same person earlier. And being convicted for murder doesn't mean you can't also be convicted for conspiracy to murder, or other similar crimes, at a later date.

In fact, if Judd had been plotting this murder for a while and if she crossed state lines with the intent to kill, she's staring at federal charges as well.

What would most likely happen if Judd killed her husband after she had already been convicted of his supposed murder? Well, her prior murder sentence would be vacated on the grounds that no murder had really occurred. But she'd be convicted and sentenced on new murder charges in Louisiana.

Would she get credit for time served? She could try, but a judge would not want to condone her behavior and encourage someone else wrongfully convicted to do the same thing.

As I watched the movie, I couldn't believe the producers expected that anyone would buy the notion that serving time for murder is a free pass to take a life. But as I filed out of the theater, I heard a sixteen-year-old boy tell his buddy, "I think this is based on a true story." If so, Hollywood isn't telling us how it ended.

"In the Bedroom": A Supposedly Insufficient Murder Case That's Actually Open and Shut

"In the Bedroom"--a critical and box office success--labors under an equally silly legal premise. In the film, a couple is driven to avenge their son's murder because the case against the murderer is too weak to successfully prosecute.

Here's what happens. First the killer beats up the victim, who is dating the killer's estranged wife played by Marisa Tomei. Then the killer beats and threatens his estranged wife. Next he shows up at his wife's house, where her boyfriend tells him to go away. The killer pretends to leave, but runs around back and breaks in and then shoots the boyfriend - in the head. His wife discovers him holding the still- smoking gun over the lifeless body. Sounds open-and-shut to me.

But not to the prosecutor in the movie. The movie would have us believe that the case is weak because the poor woman only heard but did not "see the weapon discharge."

So what? If there had to be an eyewitness to every shooting, many murderers would not be prosecuted at all and "Law and Order" would be a lot less interesting to watch. In fact, many, many times the only witness is dead. Killers prefer it that way.

But in the movie, when this supposedly pivotal fact is revealed and it's clear that the prosecution's case is unraveling, the prosecutor grimly consoles the victim's father with: "We haven't thrown in the towel yet." At which point I nearly screamed at the screen: "On what? Your career in public service?"

Defense attorneys fare no better and are routinely portrayed as ethically challenged or useless. On "Law and Order," defense lawyers and their sleazy clients routinely meet with a scene-chewing Sam Waterston, who spells out exactly what evidence the prosecution has against the suspect. That's the lawyer's cue to turn to his client and say, "You'd better tell them everything." I ask you, how does the defense lawyer bill that meeting? "Fed client to sharks: $350."

Sometimes, dispensing with competent attorneys isn't enough to move the plot forward, so even a trial can be eliminated if it suits the mood. In "White Oleander," a character played by Michelle Pfeiffer moves straight from arrest to sentence and then to appeal for the murder of her boyfriend. Bizarrely, a jury is present at the proceeding. Jurored appeals? Did a lawyer even look at the script?

How Inaccurate TV and Movie "Law" Can Affect Real Life Trials

Now, you might think that none of this matters. After all, it's only Hollywood. But so powerful are movie and television images that real-life jurors must always be set straight on how things actually work.

In Hollywood, gathering evidence is quick and easy, a far cry from the truth. Because of this view, in criminal cases, experienced prosecutors are often forced to meet a defense attorney's claim that there are phantom "missing" pieces of evidence.

Unlike on "CSI," where brilliant technicians work a single case exhaustively and uncover astoundingly convincing evidence, most evidence is circumstantial and has to be pieced together to make a legally persuasive case. But on some level, jurors are looking for the eureka moment when the truth is revealed in a lab test, or eyewitness account, or the original signature that they believe the law demands.

In my experience, jurors ultimately understand the difference between reality and fiction, when it is pointed out to them. They might be a little disappointed when they don't hear an "Ally McBeal-style" summation that would get a real lawyer sanctioned. But they are not surprised to learn that usable fingerprints are hard to recover from guns, or that no officer can arrange for an instant wiretap, unless maybe he's Denzel Washington. Nor are they shocked to hear that recovering narcotics from a drug courier's most personal body cavity is not an occasion that must be corroborated by DNA testing; the testimony of the agent who performed the thankless recovery is fine.

Wouldn't it be great, though, if we didn't have to remind jurors to disregard everything they think they learned from the movies and television? Wouldn't it be great if, for a change, Hollywood tried to get it right all the time not just some times?

In fact, it would be really easy. If, for instance, Affleck had lost the document minutes after his client signed it and died, he'd have a legal problem worth a good chase.

Cynthia M. Monaco, is an Assistant U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York who now specializes in white collar crime. She has previously worked at Ropes and Gray and served as a Special Assistant to the Deputy Attorney General; Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in Alexandria, Virginia; and Law Clerk to a Second Circuit Judge. She sees more than a fair share of films, good and bad, and keeps a stash of movie popcorn in her desk. She has yet to explode in a Pacino-like courtroom rant. The opinions expressed in this column are her own, and not necessarily those of the Department of Justice.

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