Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Judge J. Howard Sundermann, Jr.

First Appellate District of Ohio


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Diesel charms the jury in his cross-examination of witnesses and tests the legal maxim that "a laughing jury is not a hanging jury."

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by Judge J. Howard Sundermann

This film is about the longest trial in American history. It was the criminal trial of the Lucchese family of New Jersey, there were twenty defendants and the trial lasted twenty-one months. There is no star studded cast; the lead is Vin Diesel, known for stupid action films and even stupider comedies playing off his tough guy persona. But in the skilled hands of director Sidney Lumet, he is terrific in this part. Lumet has a distinguished career including such courtroom classics as 12 Angry Men and The Verdict. These films were a search for justice and justice ultimately triumphs, in Find Me Guilty we see the process but not any triumph of justice.

Even though this is a "mob" movie, there is only one brief scene of violence at the beginning; almost all of the screen time is the trial itself. Much of the dialogue comes right from the transcript of the trial. The Diesel character plays one of the twenty defendants and decides to defend himself pro se. All of the other defendants are represented, the smartest of the defense lawyers is a dwarf, and a podium with stairs is tastefully wheeled out for him whenever he addresses the jury. The other defense attorneys are presented as generally indistinguishable from their disreputable clients. The Diesel character is supposed to represent common sense and getting to the heart of the matter rather than all the legalese and complex testimony that took up most of the twenty-one months. Diesel charms the jury in his cross-examination of witnesses and tests the legal maxim that "a laughing jury is not a hanging jury."

The Diesel character is not easy to root for. He was clearly a soldier for the mob, engaged in all manor of crimes and violence. He is steadfastly loyal to his "family", turning down a plea bargain saying "I don't rat on my friends." His cousin shot him while he was in bed but Diesel refused to identify his cousin as the shooter saying my eyes were closed the whole time. Are we supposed to admire this misplaced loyalty and adherence to the code of Omerta? All of the defendants, including Diesel, seem clearly guilty of the charges, but we as viewers are charmed and amused as well as the jury. But will this be enough to get a not guilty verdict; it will cost you $8.00 to find out.

The lead prosecutor is portrayed as an all too typical movie prosecutor, arrogant and egotistical, ordering everyone around. But he is competent and fanatic about getting a conviction in this case. Diesel's cross-examinations revel some latent anti-Italian views on the part of some of the federal witnesses. He asks an FBI agent how he knew a group he observed were Italians, the answer described black hair, loud talk and waving hands. The film exposes the needless complexity and length of such a trial and the difficulty that our judicial and jury system have in dealing with it.

The judge is well played by Ron Silver; he tries his best to keep things moving and to avoid a mistrial. He is annoyed by the Diesel character, but becomes more tolerant, even sympathetic, as the trial proceeds. The usual cinematic license is exercised with the judge. There are numerous ex-parte conferences, one with only the judge and Diesel, and the judge is shown to have a full bar on display in chambers with the liquor in crystal decanters.

This film has its defects, but it is very good. I'm afraid it will not be in theaters long as it does not have much action or sex, but the film is well worth seeing, Lumet has not lost his courtroom touch.

Posted March 10, 2006

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