Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Worst Courtroom Drama: No. 3 A Few Good Men

The movie A Few Good Men (1992) is often listed as among the best courtroom movies ever. Its  concluding scene, the final confrontation between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, is cinema magic.

Cruise:  "I want the truth!"
Nicholson: "You can't handle the truth!"

 Click HERE for clip of the classic confrontation scne.

It's the stuff of movie legend.  But here's the real truth. As law, it stinks.

Ask any lawyer who has ever stepped in a courtroom, and they will roll their eyes.

In 30 years of appearing in court, taking depositions, seeing my clients examined and cross-examining witnesses, I can attest that you will NEVER get a lying witness to knuckle under by screaming at him/her:  "I want the truth!"

On those rare occasions where you do get a witness to capitulate, to admit that their story was simply a fabrication, you do so by presenting hard irrefutable evidence:  emails, internal records, photographs, medical records, prior statements.

Seriously.  If you look at a witness in court and yell:  "I want the truth," the following will happen:

  1. The judge, after a brief pause, will either laugh, or wiggle his finger calling you to the bench, at which time he will say: "Counsel, what the hell are you doing."
  2. Opposing counsel will stand up: "Your honor, he's got the truth, he just doesn't like it."  He will then object as argumentative, badgering the witness, and not being a question, which objection will be sustained.
  3. The witness will say "I told you the truth."
  4. The jury, seeing the judge laugh, will titter under their collective breath, then as they walk out on the next break, start doing their best Jack Nicholson impersonations.
A Few Good Men came close to getting it right. Click here for movie trailer.  Most of the movie follows the somewhat different courts martial procedure.  Cruise's character discovered the flight logs that undermined the colonel's story of events.  He used it to undermine the Colonel's credibility.

But no trial advocacy class ever taught that the way to get a witness to abandon a lie and testify as to the truth is the yell: "I want the truth.!" and expect the witness to cave. Hell, even the little old lady lying about the color of a traffic light won't do that, let along a full bird Colonel with his entire career on the line.

How could it have been played differently?

How about if Colonel Jacobs maintained his story on the stand.  "No, I did not order a Code Red."   Court adjourns to consider its verdict. The case is seemingly lost. But in the men's room, Jacobs confronts a hang-dog Cruise.  A shouting confrontation erupts.  "I want the truth!"  "You can't handle the truth!" Nicholson gives his explosive speech, then struts out in apparent triumph. The judge of the court martial then exits from a stall.

Just a thought.

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