Anatomy of a MurderThe "Lecture"
By Michael Asimow, UCLA Law School (February 1998)
The film Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is probably the finest pure trial movie ever made. The film is based on a powerful 1958 novel by Robert Traver (the pseudonym of Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker). It centers on a gripping small-town murder trial of Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara). Manion clearly gunned down Barney Quill in Quills bar. But why did he do it? Icy prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott in an awesome debut) claims it happened in a jealous rage when Manion found out that his wife Laura (a very sexy Lee Remick) and Quill were having an affair. Homespun defense lawyer Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart in an unforgettable portrayal) would rather be catching trout. He claims it happened because Manion was seized by an irresistible impulsehe just found out that Quill had raped Laura after picking her up in the bar. The trial is a slam-bang affair with wonderful twists and turns, always informed by a deep understanding of the unexpected dilemmas and quick decisions that confront every litigator .
The film is loaded with fascinating legal issues, such as the validity and applicability of the irresistible impulse version of the insanity defense. It raises numerous issues of trial practice, tactics, and ethics. It poses the issue of whether a cross-examiner should ever ask a question to which he doesnt know the answer. The sensational jazz score was written by Duke Ellington. The wise-owl judge was played by Joseph N. Welch, who won fame representing the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings of the early 50's.
In his famous "lecture," Biegler skates close to the line of unethical witness coachingthat is, knowingly altering a witness story about the events in question. When Biegler first meets Manion in jail, he manages to overcome the clients intense mistrust and then the discussion turns to whether the client has a defense. How far can counsel go in suggesting a defense to a client who hasnt a clue? And should the lawyer discuss possible defenses before asking the client what happened? Because once the client has told the attorney his story, that freezes the clients version of the facts; its too late to mold the facts to fit a particular defense.
Clearly it is improper to assist the client to make up facts that never occurred. Model Rule 3.4(b) states that a lawyer must not "counsel or assist a witness to testify falsely." But its perfectly OK (indeed obligatory) for counsel to interview a witness and to discuss his testimony in order to assist the witness to testify effectively. And surely it is appropriate to tell a client what the law is, even if that suggests a defense to the client that he might not have realized was available. The problem is that a clever attorney can convey an implicit message to a witness that alters the witness testimonywithout ever coming out and actually telling the witness to do it.
In the film, Biegler is obviously quite aware of the limits on witness coaching but most observers think he stayed on the ethical side of the line. Without first asking Manion exactly what happened, he tells Manion about the categories of justification and excuse and rules out each possible claim. For example, killing in the defense of another is a possible justificationbut not an hour after the purported rape occurred. Biegler also nixes the "unwritten law" which allows you to kill someone whom you discover in flagrante with your spouse. Not recognized as a defense in Michigan, unfortunately.
So Biegler keeps Manion guessing until Manion says "I must have been mad." Sorry, bad temper isnt a defense. "No," says Manion, "I must have been crazy. " "Well, Lieutenant," replies Biegler, as he steps from the room, "in the meantime, see if you can remember how crazy you were." So the client comes up with the defense, albeit with a bit of gentle prodding from the attorney, and either remembers or fabricates the facts to support that defense. Weve screened this scene before quite a few audiences, and hardly any attorneys have ever voted to discipline Biegler, even though it seems quite likely that Manions testimony is different than it would have been in the absence of the lecture and that Biegler intended exactly that.
In the book however, Biegler goes a step further. The suggestion for the insanity defense comes from Biegler, not from Manion. Speaking in the first person, Biegler recounts his conversation with his client: " Then, finally theres the defense of insanity. I paused, and spoke abruptly, airily: Well, that just about winds it up. " Then Manion starts asking questions about insanity. Biegler plays dumb and answers the questions, but tells the reader: "My naivete was somewhat excessive; it had been obvious to me from merely reading the newspaper the night before that insanity was the best, if not the only, legal defense the man had. And here Id just slammed shut every other escape hatch and told him this was the last. Only a cretin could have missed it, and I was rapidly learning that Lieutenant Manion was no cretin." (Pp. 45-46)
It can be argued that, in the books version, Biegler overstepped the line by coaching his client right into a made-up defense. See Richard C. Wydick, The Ethics of Witness Coaching, 17 Cardozo L. Rev. 1, 25-27 (1995). The movie, however, is more subtle. The client comes up with the defense, but obviously with a lot of covert help from his lawyer. What do you think? Did Biegler cross the line in either the book or the movie? Or have the ethical rules about witness coaching departed so far from actual practice that theyve become irrelevant? Do we now tolerate any sort of coaching short of telling the client to lie?
Its very rare for an attorney to be punished (criminally or ethically) for witness coaching, because the offense occurs in private. Yet current events in the nations capitol remind us that subornation of perjury isnt always a well-kept little secret. The great film Anatomy of a Murder makes us focus on the elusive distinctions between appropriate witness preparation and inappropriate coaching.