The Envelope Please

 Favorite Films of Our Public Defenders

In 1998 the Santa Barbara Public Defenders Office conducted a poll of its staff to obtain recommendations of films which best capture the public defender professional world. Forty some films were nominated. The top ten and honorable mentions are given below. Note the dates; many of these classics have been remade for big screen and/or TV. Accept no substitutes!

10. In Cold Blood (1967). Truman Capote's retelling of a true murder from the heart of America. The film has a newsreel like accuracy and feeling of voyeurism. What is crime about?

9. A Time to Kill (1996). Grishams story of the trial of a black man in Mississippi charged with killing white racists (and wounding a bailiff) who raped his child. Attorney fights community outrage to successfully defend the client.

8. Shawshank Redemption (1994). After years of imprisonment, old men are released to a society they do not know. Effectively demonstrates the absurdity of our penal system.

7. Gideon's Trumpet (1980). The story of the critical case in the growth of the public defender movement. A simple man writes a letter to the Supreme Court of the United States and changes legal history. A true story.

6. True Believer (1989). James Woods as California's favorite iconoclastic defense attorney, Tony Serra. Loosely based on a real prison murder by an inmate wrongfully imprisoned in the first place. Captures the essence of criminal defense work in a solid crime mystery format.

5. In the Name of the Father (1993). Daniel Day Lewis plays a character we recognize even on this side of the Atlantic. A young Irishman is swept up in London's reaction to terrorism and overreaching police obtain questionable confessions. Based on a true story.

4. Twelve Angry Men (1957). The classic jury film. Henry Fonda fights prejudice as an independent-minded juror and makes a difference. Reminds us that what jurors see may be different than what lawyers present and also why the jury system is so important.

3. Dead Man Walking (1995). A classic public defender client faces death for his crime. Examines both sides of the capital punishment issue with empathy but not with blinders.

2. My Cousin Vinny (1992). Hilarious defense of youts conducted by a new big city lawyer (Joe Pesci) in a small southern town. One defendant is represented by the local public defender who is excellent in interviews but cannot speak when in the courtroom. Fun and yet respectful.

And, the award for "best picture" goes to...

1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). The heart and spirit of the defense in criminal law. Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch who defends a despised black man in a small southern town when he is charged with rape. A classic movie trial and one of the most inspiring pictures about law ever made. The film most cited by law students as motivating them to enter law school.

Also receiving substantial votes were the following:

Amistad (1997). Demonstrates the potential for the legal system under our Constitution. While not always realized, we are reminded to keep fighting for fairness and justice.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Jimmy Stewart and Lee Grant. Explains the McNaughton insanity rule. Rape, murder in all the gory details.

...And Justice for All (1979). Out of control legal system causes criminal defense attorney to question his job. While the ethical message is questionable, the film captures the gestalt of the system as many knew it in the 70s. Al Pacino as the defense attorney, Jack Warder as his client/judge.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). Henry Fonda is part of an out-west version of the kangaroo court. Demonstrates the reason for due-process and technicalities. A mob summarily tries, convicts and hangs innocent people. Great dialogue.

Raising Arizona (1987). Nicholas Cage (who else would be better) as a classic public defender client who pairs up with a prison guard to kidnap a child of a wealthy local furniture dealer. Misguided but often well-intentioned, they end up where most clients finish.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Charles Laughton as a defense attorney who discovers that winning is not what it is all about.

For information on these and other films, visit the fantastic Internet Movie Database Ltd (IMBd) site; free, comprehensive information about virtually every movie ever made!