How Can You Defend Those
by John Denvir
Lawyer movies come and go,
but some just stick in your mind.
True Believer is like that for me. It's not only a good
entertainment, but it also raises one of the ultimate questions
of legal ethics-how can good lawyers defend bad people?
story revolves around the life choices of criminal defense lawyer
Eddie Dodd portrayed in a fine bravura performance by James Woods.
The ethical issue is raised by Dodd's neophyte associate, Roger
Baron, in a subtle performance by Robert Downey Jr. Baron came
to work for Dodd because of Dodd's legendary work as a civil
rights attorney, but discovers the Dodd's current practice specializes
in the defense of successful narcotics dealers.
Roger is shocked to discover
that Dodd is quite successful in exonerating defendants he knows
are guilty. He naively asks whether Dodd might someday represent
an innocent defendant. His question begins Dodd's search for
a moral justification for the role of the criminal defense bar.
Three major justifications are considered in the course of the
film. The first represents Baron's amateur perspective: criminal
defense attorneys are needed to defend innocent clients. Dodd
quickly rejects this utopian premise with the curt reply, "The
one thing you learn as a criminal defense lawyer is that they're
all guilty." Of course, we know Dodd exaggerates; every
week or so we see a news story abut how new DNA evidence has
led to the release of a prisoner unjustly convicted. Still, these
cases seem to be the exception, not the rule. Most people charged
with crime are guilty of some crime, most the crime with which
they are charged.
At the beginning of the film
Dodd tries to justify his role by recourse to another well known
defense of the criminal defense bar; the noble fight to protect
our civil liberties against invasion by a burgeoning police state.
The client may be a drug lord, but the true beneficiaries of
the lawyer's labors are the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Downey
is not impressed with argument; nor am I. Sophisticated lawyers
know that the outcome of a case is predicated on two factors,
the applicable legal rule and the court's visceral reaction to
the factual context in which it is being applied. One partial
reason for the judicial shrinking of Fourth and Fifth Amendment
is that these lofty constitutional ideals are usually litigated
in the context of a nasty drug deal. Of course, zealous advocacy
requires a lawyer representing clients accused of drug crimes
to use every available defense including those alleging an illegal
search and seizure, but to say one takes drug cases in order
to promote civil liberties seems a little disingenuous. Our civil
liberties have not benefited from their involuntary association
with drug dealers.
But Dodd does find good reason
to be a true believer in the role of the criminal defense attorney.
It comes to him in the person of a Korean mother who asks him
to help her son who, serving a life sentence for a gang murder,
is now accused of a second murder in a prison gang fight. The
viewer already knows her son; the opening shots of the film had
shown us him in preparation for the prison fight; we see him
having knives taped to both of his hands in order to turn him
into some sort of lethal bird of prey. It had never occurred
to us that this animal could be somebody's baby boy.
In a mute response to Roger's
criticisms, Eddie takes the case. His cynicism dissolves at the
sight of this young man whose incarceration has transformed him
into a killing machine. He decides that no matter what the boy
has done, he's been in prison long enough. It time for a lawyer
to go to work.
From this point on, the film
becomes a skillful portrayal of the practice of criminal law.
As in real life, investigation of the facts turns out more important
than eloquence before a jury. And one gets a good sense of the
showmanship necessary to negotiate a good deal for your client
And, since movies like to improve on real life, it turns out
that Dodd's client is not guilty after all. His first conviction
was the product of a police frame-up, and his prison homicide
turns out to be a case of self-defense.
But Dodd's response would have
been no different if his client has been guilty-and no less heroic.
Most Americans only know about the world of crime from the images
that appear on movie and televisions screens. Hollywood likes
to show us evil geniuses played by the likes of Anthony Hopkins
and John Malkovich. These projections of our darkest fantasies
work on the dramatic level, but crime on the street is a more
prosaic matter. You don't have to jettison the concept of free
will to concede that the inhabitants of our prisons are mostly
losers who have always been given the wrong end of the social
stick from birth. Most criminals are not psychopathic geniuses
like Hanibal Lector, but the not so bright sons of broken homes
and lousy schools with bleak employment possibilities.
It's true that they have violated
a duty to society, but no less true that society had violated
its duty to them. At a minimum, we owe them someone to speak
up for them in their hour of need. We owe them a good criminal
Posted: September 24, 2001