JUDGE’S VOICE: …and that concludes the court’s explanation of the legal aspects of this case. And now, gentlemen of the jury, I come to my final instruction to you…However you decide, your verdict must be unanimous. In the event you find the accused guilty, the bench will not entertain a recommendation for mercy. The death sentence is mandatory in this case. I don’t envy your job. You are faced with a grave responsibility. Thank you, gentlemen.
The opening lines of 12 Angry Men (1954), Reginald Rose’s stunning television play, stage play and later film. It tracks the deliberations of 12 jurors, all of whom are referred to by their juror number, in fact not a single character is given a name at all. It is an outstanding piece of writing and its messages and themes are as sharp and as relevant today as in 1954. Today, in honour of Rose’s work, I’d like to look at some of the best fictional characters given to us in the form of lawyers, judges and jurors.
Over the past 40 posts, we’ve explored many aspects of the crime fiction genre, but we’ve never really moved past the detective. There are many different ways in which a crime fiction story can manifest itself, and the courtroom drama (on in Rose’s case, the jury room drama) is one of the most popular formats. I’d like to look at a few examples which show the genre in its best light.
- A Time to Kill (1989) by John Grisham. Grisham’s first novel introduces us to attorney Jake Brigance defending his friend Carl Lee who has killed the two men accused of raping Lee’s daughter. Grisham’s extensive legal experience floods the book with courtroom procedure and legal process. Joel Schumacher made it into a film in 1996. Both are excellent.
- Runaway Jury (1996) also by John Grisham. Juror Nicholas Easter ensures that his fellow jurors create an unlevel playing field for the big tobacco companies being sued by the plaintiff. Gary Fleder’s 2003 film version swaps tobacco for guns but the impact of the runaway juror is the same.
- Presumed Innocent (1987) by Scott Turow. A stunning first novel in which Turow reinvents the legal thriller. Told entirely in the first person by the defendant Rusty Sabich who is charged with the murder of his colleague, with whom he has been having an affair. The characters of both Sabich and his lawyer Sandy Stern are among some of the best in crime fiction. The book was made into a film in 1990 by Alan J. Pakula, the master of the paranoia thriller.
- A Few Good Men (1989) by Aaron Sorkin. Originally a play, before being made into a film in 1992 by Rob Reiner. Sorkin’s script (he also wrote the screenplay) gives us memorable characters (Lt Daniel Kaffee, Col Jessup) and iconic lines including the oft-quoted you can’t handle the truth as it explores the concept of honourable behaviour among US Marines.
- Inherit the Wind (1955) by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. The script for this play provides a fictional account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial and is, in essence, a debate about the relationship between evolution and religion. It has been made into a film four times.
- Fictional defence attorney Perry Mason from the pen of Erle Stanley Gardner, one of the best selling crime novelists of all time. The character Perry Mason appears in over 80 novels and short stories and was brought to life on screen by Raymond Burr, who also played Ironside. Perry Mason is addicted to the hopeless case and accepts work, often on a whim, because he feels some connection to the accused. He is perhaps what most non-lawyers think of when they think of a lawyer.
- Juror No. 8 from Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men. The role of a lifetime for Henry Fonda who brings the character to life in Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film adaptation, written by Rose. When the other characters push for a quick verdict and all vote guilty Juror No. 8 stands alone. It is a brilliant film and I urge you to watch it. It was nominated for a clutch of Academy Awards but lost out on all counts to The Bridge on The River Kwai.
- Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) is a film directed by Stanley Kramer and stars, amongst others, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Marlene Dietrich. Kramer condenses the full horror of the holocaust into a courtroom drama. It is a genuine classic.
It would be reckless to write about fictional lawyers, judges and jurors without making reference to one character in particular. If Perry Mason is what most non-lawyers think of when they think of a lawyer, then Atticus Finch, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is the lawyer that most lawyers want to be. Finch is not just one of the best fictional lawyer characters, he is one of the best characters ever created. I read this book as a child, and the following quote, from Atticus Finch, has lived me ever since.
Courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.