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Thanks to Message, Lawyers Forgive Film's Distortions

March 09, 1989|CATHERINE M. SPEARNAK

SAN DIEGO — 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.

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."

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.

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.

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