#3. Gregory Peck -- To Kill a Mockingbird
In what has been voted the greatest courtroom drama of all time, Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch, a lawyer tasked with defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. With an obviously monumental task in front of him, Peck vigorously points out all the inaccuracies in the girl's story (nothing will endear a jury more than badgering a rape victim) and fairly conclusively proves that there's no way Tom could have done it.
Of course, this wouldn't be called a drama if everything was sunshine and rainbows. Tom is still convicted by the entirely white jury (the 1950s South isn't what one would call "enlightened"), and before Peck can appeal the ruling, Tom is killed in prison. Peck mopes around for the rest of the movie and contemplates giving up on practicing law.
He then legally declares the jury to be a "bunch of dicks."
It's not a Christmas movie.
Actually, giving up might not be such a bad idea. If Peck was such a brilliant lawyer, why didn't he petition for a change of venue? Even Matthew McConaughey's character thought to request a change of venue, and he's Matthew McConaughey.
"Oh well, I tried. I guess I'll just head on home, then."
A change of venue is a legal concept that was basically developed for this very purpose. If it is believed that a fair trial cannot be obtained in the proper jurisdiction, the proceedings can be moved elsewhere "in the interest of justice." There's no way in hell Tom would get a fair trial in Whiteyville, so Peck could just petition to move things elsewhere. One could argue that since the judge has the final say on whether to grant a change of venue, he would just deny the motion for no reason other than being a racist prick, making the gesture pointless. However, Judge Taylor is shown to sympathize with Tom Robinson and holds Peck in high regard (he's actually the one who appoints him as Tom's legal counsel), so there's no reason to believe he wouldn't grant the motion.
Additionally, Peck knew that the jury was biased and that nothing Tom said would change their minds, so why would he put Tom on the stand? Tom isn't required to testify, and Tom saying he felt sorry for a white woman just pisses off the already prejudiced jury. Look, we love Finch for his character, his morality and his Lincoln-esque level of integrity as much as the next guy, but damn he is a bad lawyer.
"Maybe incompetence is just as bad as racism."
#2. Terry A. Burgess -- In the Bedroom
Proving that stupidity doesn't take a side and that not all legal screw-ups are from defense attorneys, In the Bedroom's Terry Burgess plays a prosecuting attorney, but mostly an idiot. After Marissa Tomei's lover was shot by her psychotic ex-husband, the police haul him off to jail and Burgess, the D.A., comes to take her statement. During the questioning, it comes out that Marissa didn't actually see her ex shoot her boyfriend, she only heard the shot and then saw her ex standing over the body with a gun in his hand. The D.A. then says they don't have much of a case because she didn't see him do it. The law having failed them, the victim's parents are forced to take matters into their own hands.
You don't mess with the coal miner's daughter.
Since when is having a direct witness to a crime necessary for conviction? What with murder being illegal, many times it is committed with no witnesses at all. Miraculously, witnessless murder convictions have still occurred, even when the prosecution is lacking a motive, a murder weapon and in some cases even a body. Burgess has a motive (the ex-husband had attacked the boyfriend before), a murder weapon (he's still holding the gun when the police show up) and a witness irrefutably placing him as the only other person at the murder scene! What the hell about this is not open and shut? If a cop sees you with your pants down squatting over the hood of his patrol car with a pile of crap on it, do you think your defense that the cop didn't actually see you take the dump is going to hold up in court?
"I can't be sure. He may have killed himself, and the force of the shot blew the gun into my ex's hands."
Burgess also explains they can't convict him of murder (only of the less serious charge of manslaughter) because they can't prove that the gun didn't go off in a struggle. Except that they totally can, because there's an entire field of science dedicated to this sort of investigation, known as "forensics." You might have heard of it, it's been on a few TV shows. Blood stain analysis could determine if there was an actual struggle or if the fight was one-sided. Gunpowder residue would tell police if the gun was fired at a distance or at point-blank range, as would happen in a struggle. Rather than leave it up to that hocus-pocus hogwash called "science," Burgess issues his proclamation, and as a result, the ex-husband gets off scot free.
"So ... pancakes, then?"
Until the victim's parents murder him, obviously. But that's sort of a separate issue ...
#1. Andy Griffith -- Matlock
When that lovable scamp from Mayberry decided it was time to hang up his badge, he decided he still had a flair for justice, so he put on his lawyerin' shoes and took up the cases of the most guilty sumbitches in the greater Atlanta area. In every episode, Matlock takes on a seemingly guilty client who was actually innocent. Matlock discovers the frame job and, by the end of every episode, reveals the truth in some grand dramatic fashion at the end of the trial. Generally, you know that whoever Matlock puts on the stand last is the person who actually committed the crime. Matlock gets them on the stand and pulls some surprise piece of evidence out of his ass that shocks the witness into a confession.
"That evidence is so surprising to me, I have no choice but to broadly announce my irredeemable guilt!"
Despite his shoe-polishing fetish and endearing backwoods nature, Andy commits many, many breaches of ethical conduct that would not only get him disbarred, but likely thrown in jail as well. For instance, he is shown collecting evidence at crime scenes to dramatically reveal during the trial. While this makes for good TV, it's also obstruction of justice. No one outside of the police is allowed to touch or remove evidence from a crime scene, otherwise everybody would do that.
"OK, nobody touch anything until the lawyers get here! This is a crime scene, people!"
Even if it wasn't, the evidence wouldn't do a damn thing to help his client. When evidence is discovered, it is meticulously handled and cataloged in a heavily documented paper trail called the chain of custody. Even missing one link in the chain can mean the evidence is useless. It's not about him being a rebel or unconventional; the evidence is inadmissible.
Finally, in reality, there's never any "surprise" evidence in a trial. All evidence pertaining to a trial has to be disclosed before the trial actually begins as part of the discovery process so that each side can figure out how to support or disprove every piece of evidence. In real life, any judge would say, "Hey, that was a neat little show you put on, but this guilty criminal is going to walk forever now because you broke several laws trying to convict him in the cutesiest way possible."
So if you want a good show, go with Andy. If you'd prefer not to take up permanent residence on death row, start flipping through the Yellow Pages. You certainly can't do any worse.
For more characters who secretly sucked at their job, check out 6 Movie Heroes Who Sucked at Their Job and 6 'Brilliant' Movie Scientists (Who Suck At Their Job).
And stop by LinkSTORM to enlist John Cheese's services to defend you against those horribly disgusting charges that are being leveled against you.
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