Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Worst Courtroom Drama: No. 4 Runaway Jury

John Grisham is the godfather of the modern legal thriller.  Everyone who writes legal thrillers, me included, owes him a debt of gratitude. But the entire premise of his book and the movie Runaway Jury (2003) is one of the most preposterous in legal fiction.  Entertaining - but preposterous

The premise:  The widow of an office worker sues the manufacturer of the gun used to kill her husband and several other co-workers.  So far so good.

But then any link between the real legal system and the plot vanishes.  Click HERE for the movie trailer

First, the bad guy:  Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) is a jury consultant. He runs a warehouse operation that makes the CIA look like pikers. He and his little army of menions break all types of laws to obtain information and blackmail jurors.   But even more,  he sneaks a camera into the courtroom and serves as the puppet master for the gun company's lawyer.

Next:  the good guys:  Nicholas Easter and girlfriend Marlee  (John Cusack and Rachel Weisz) were survivors at an Indiana school shooting years before.  Justice was denied in the subsequent trial against the gun manufacturer because of the gun company's jury consultant - Rankin Fitch.  So the young couple dedicates their lives lives trying to exact revenge on Rankin and the gun companies.  They travel to any city where there has been a mass shooting, attempting to get on a jury in a case against a gun manufacturer.

Finally, there is the good guy lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman).  He resists an offer from the couple to buy the jury.  But when the case seems to be slipping away, he asks his partners for access to $1 million from the "firm's emergency fund" to pay off a juror.

The plot is wrong on so many levels. Yes, jury consultants exist. But their role is limited.  Lawyers generally have three strikes from the jury pool - enough to eliminate the worst of problem jurors, but not enough to mold the entire jury.  And in reality, most trial lawyers resent jury consultants and rely on their own instincts.

The likelihood of being selected on a jury pool within the first year you move into a city is very remote.  The likelihood of being picked for any particular case is - well - the next thing to impossible.  And then there is Cusack's super-natural ability to manipulate the jurors by everything from manipulating their lunch to exploiting their prejudices.

And the secret law firm cash stash to bribe the jury?  No.  Law firms don't keep stashes of millions of dollars hanging around for buying results.

Despite all of this, the movie is strangely engrossing. Maybe its just watching Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman ply their craft.  John Cusack and Rachel Weisz are likeable.  Throw in the backdrop of New Orleans and a trial in the old abandoned federal courthouse in the French Quarter (refurbished specifically for this movie) and you get an entertaining movie..

It's worth watching. But don't confuse it with anything resembling what really happens in the justice system.

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