Everyone loves a good courtroom scene. We get lots of dramatic speeches and over-acting and Jack Nicholson reminding us that we can in no way handle the truth. But more than that, these scenes ultimately lead to Lady Justice being served. The bad guys go to jail.
Unfortunately, much of the time justice gets served only because a screenwriter twisted the law beyond recognition.
The Crime: Murder, Assault, Bootlegging, basically being a Mob Boss and Tax Evasion
The Ruling: Guilty Because Your Lawyer Says So
Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness is determined to break the stranglehold that Al Capone has on Prohibition-era Chicago. He assembles an elite team of "untouchable" (i.e. not actually corrupt) cops, and after a couple dozen people are killed, they arrest Capone for the capital crime of tax evasion, which today can get you made secretary of the treasury. But anyway.
Look, Kevin Costner!
When Ness discovers mid-trial that the jury has been bribed, he confronts the judge, who is also in Capone's pocket, and threatens to expose him if he doesn't do something. Instead of declaring a mistrial, the judge switches the entire jury with the jury from the trial next door, after the trial has already begun.
In a moment of panic, Capone's lawyer changes the plea to guilty, and the courtroom erupts as though all crime has just been wiped off the face of the Earth.
Hooray! We're safe forever!
Ever had to go in for jury duty? And the lengthy selection process? All that stuff happens for a reason. Juries are specially selected to avoid a conflict in the case being tried -- hell, Capone's second cousin could have been in the jury next door for all they knew. That's why a judge doesn't have the power to place a jury that the lawyers haven't selected or interviewed, let alone do so mid-trial.
But this point becomes moot minutes later, when, seeing that the evidence is stacked against them, Capone's lawyer switches his plea to guilty. The court erupts, cheering, while Capone punches out his lawyer and is then seen in the background being led off to jail screaming, "Is this justice?"
Well, no, actually.
This is Sean Connery.
The whole point of the scene seems to be that Capone's lawyer switches sides and pulls the rug out from under Capone. But in real life, a court can't accept a plea without a defendant's verbal consent, no matter what the lawyer suddenly announces.
"Oh, and that DUI I got charged with last week? He's pleading guilty to that, too."
The lawyer works for the accused, after all. Which means that instead of the court celebrating like they had all just won the lottery when they hear the guilty plea, Capone actually could have just fired his lawyer, had him killed (not necessarily in that order) and then stuck with his not-guilty plea and bribed the next jury, too.
The Crime: Murder
The Ruling: Not Guilty by Reason of Awesome Acting Abilities
In Primal Fear, Edward Norton viciously murders a priest, stabbing him 78 times and cutting off his fingers, and then runs away covered in his blood. Richard Gere is a Chicago defense attorney who goes apeshit over the awesomeness of this and takes Norton's case. They submit a plea of not guilty, but while investigating the case, Gere finds out that Norton totally did it, but he also appears to have multiple personalities, so he should be all set to go with an insanity plea.
Pleading insanity is the duct tape of legal defenses.
The only problem is that he isn't allowed to change the plea in the middle of the trial, which means his crazy, guilty client is going to be found just plain guilty, without the added fun and lenient sentencing that comes with the crazy part.
The only solution Gere can come up with is putting Norton, who is soft-spoken with a polite stutter, on the stand in his own defense. When the tough-talking female prosecutor lays into Norton about murdering the priest, his alternate violent personality comes out and Norton attacks her, proving he's crazy.
After Norton is arrested yet again, the judge calls both lawyers to her chambers to discuss the case. After Gere assures her that Norton is actually crazy, she decides to dismiss the jury, declare it a bench trial, find Norton not guilty by reason of insanity and remand him to a mental institution to decide how long he'll be committed. And then comes the twist ending ...
... In the final scene it is revealed that Norton was faking the whole time: There was no alternate personality and he is simply the world's greatest actor. The cold-blooded serial killer is his true personality, and the soft-spoken stutterer was all an act.
The best part is he can't be tried for the same murder twice (that'd be double jeopardy), so once he checks out clear at the mental institution, he'll be back on the street. Gere is both mortified by this and insanely jealous of Norton's acting ability since, unlike himself, Norton clearly has enough range to play characters who aren't lawyers.
Psychology can be an inexact science, sure. But still they tend to, you know, actually have experts test people before declaring them insane. Instead of subjecting Norton to testing by any kind of court-appointed psychiatrist and waiting for a report from an actual expert, the judge just decides that "yeah, he seems pretty crazy" and sends him off to the loony bin with no questions asked.
Hugs all around!
And keep in mind, we as an audience have been seeing Norton's split personality emerge slowly throughout the film, and we know that he switches from mild-mannered kid to crazed sociopath. But the judge sees only one violent outburst in a courtroom from a defendant who is on trial for a vicious, bloody murder. Which is kind of what you'd expect to see.
And yet within moments, she has him declared not guilty by reason of insanity, partly because Gere assures her that Norton is indeed insane.
"Who in his right mind would do this? Not guilty!"
There was no reason for the judge not to wait for him to be tested to make her decision, just in case the guy's attorney might have been lying or even mistaken, since he's a lawyer, not a psychiatrist. Or she even could have declared a mistrial and allowed him to be tried again with an insanity plea to begin with, but apparently she's very busy, as she is seen going home immediately after making her decision. She doesn't have time for shit like this!
The Crime: Double Homicide
The Ruling: Not Guilty Because It's Really Sad
Samuel L. Jackson's daughter is raped and beaten by two white guys who are almost immediately arrested. Samuel L. Jackson doesn't trust any form of justice that he doesn't get to dish out personally and is worried the men won't be found guilty. Instead of waiting to find out whether that's true, Samuel L. Jackson shoots them both dead right in the courthouse, because he's Samuel L. fucking Jackson.
And he does it with an M16. Reason for this: See above.
Knowing he's going to be tried by a white jury, Jackson hires the whitest guy he can find to defend him -- Matthew McConaughey.
He actually only wanted to hire McConaughey's abs, but apparently they're a package deal.
McConaughey enters a plea of not guilty due to "temporary insanity" and proceeds to not back this up in any way. In his closing argument, McConaughey doesn't even pretend to believe that Jackson was insane at the time, legally or temporarily.
In fact, in his entire eight-minute closing argument he uses the word "insane" exactly zero times. Instead he urges the jury to see the crime from Jackson's point of view, to imagine that it was a white girl who had been attacked, and to imagine what they would do if it had been their daughter. Because as we all know, rape is OK unless the victim is from your same race.
McConaughey: OK with racial discrimination.
Jackson is found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, which is a pretty big slap in the face to the justice system. First of all, no one truly believes he was insane -- he even sat in the courthouse all night with a loaded weapon, waiting for the guys, which proves pre-planning and a lot of patience.
In fact, McConaughey basically admits in his closing argument that Jackson did it, and asks the jury to find him not guilty anyway. A jury, however, is instructed to convict based on evidence alone. They are not there to decide whether he should have done it or what punishment he will face; they are there to decide whether he did do it or not. And he obviously did.
That is not the beard of an innocent man.
What makes it worse is that when Jackson killed the two rapists, he also accidentally shot a deputy who was escorting the two men -- the guy even needs his leg amputated. But hey, maybe he wasn't using that leg.
"No, it's cool. I mean, I was standing there, in your way, doing my job. And you're Samuel L. fucking Jackson."
So Jackson is accused of three separate charges: two murder charges and attempted murder of the deputy. Even though they're allowed to find him guilty of just the attempted murder, the jury absolves him of being responsible for shooting the deputy, too. Hey, how was Jackson to know that firing that M-16 in a crowded room would have consequences other than the ones he intended.
Basically, the court just rules that revenge is OK as long as racial grievance is involved. Doesn't that mean the deputy should have gotten to shoot Jackson in the leg too, or at least punched him in the face? You know, for justice.
And for making The Man.