Nov 06, 2017
The Pop Culture Closing Argument
Nov 06, 2017
By Charles D. Dresow
Jury trials are perfect subjects for TV shows, books and movies. Innumerable works of fiction in print and on screen have taken advantage of the natural drama of a jury trial. They depict dramatic moments from opening arguments to cross-examination to the final words of closing argument and, of course, the verdict.
In real life, the drama of a jury trial could hardly be more keenly felt by its participants, with the jumble of anticipation and emotions while waiting for the verdict. The experience is like no other as the jury foreperson hands the verdict to the judge, then the excruciating wait as the judge reviews the verdict forms before passing them to the clerk to be read. The authentic human drama of jury trial has inspired countless works of fiction and much like trial lawyers, the creators of these works of fiction must captivate and persuade their audiences. A real-life lawyer can study fictional arguments and video clips of trained actors playing attorneys to see how to present an argument to an audience.
Just Like in the Movies
TV shows like Boston Legal and The Practice focused on the case of the week and the climax of the episode was normally the closing argument of one of the stars. Movies like The Verdict starring Paul Newman and A Time to Kill starring Matthew McConaughey featured brilliant closing argument. In real life, closing arguments are a chance to persuade the jury to rule in your client’s favor. In fiction, closing argument builds the drama and creates a memorable emotional focal point for the viewer. Ultimately, they share the same purpose—to persuade the audience.
In The Verdict, Paul Newman plays a career-on-the-rocks attorney who has only one case. Drama abounds in the twists and turns of a jury trial in which Paul Newman faces a better funded opposing counsel and a biased judge. All appears lost until the emotional climax of the movie when Mr. Newman rises and gives the following brief, powerful, and effective closing argument:
Well...You know, so much of the time we're just lost. We say, "Please, God, tell us what is right. Tell us what is true."
I mean there is no justice. The rich win; the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time we become dead, a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims—and we become victims. We become weak; we doubt ourselves; we doubt our beliefs; we doubt our institutions; and we doubt the law.
But today you are the law. You are the law, not some book, not the lawyers, not a marble statue, or the trappings of the court. See, those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are, in fact, a prayer, I mean a fervent and a frightened prayer.
In my religion, they say, "Act as if you had faith; faith will be given to you."
If we are to have faith in justice we need only to believe in ourselves and act with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.
In A Time To Kill, Matthew McConaughey plays a young lawyer defending a black man on trial for killing his daughter’s white rapists. Once again the movie portrays the twists and turns of a jury trial leading into the closing argument as the emotional climax of the movie. Mr. McConaughey’s closing persuades both the viewer and the jury:
I had a great summation all worked out, full of some sharp lawyering. But I'm not going to read it. I'm here to apologize. I am young and I am inexperienced.
But you cannot hold Carl Lee Hailey responsible for my shortcomings. You see, in all this legal maneuvering something has gotten lost, and that something is the truth.
Now, it is incumbent upon us lawyers not to just talk about the truth, but to actually seek it, to find it, to live it. My teacher taught me that. Let's take Dr. Bass, for example. Now, obviously I would have never knowingly put a convicted felon on the stand—I hope you can believe that. But what is the truth? That he is a disgraced liar? And what if I told you that the woman he was accused of raping was 17, he was 23, that she later became his wife, bore his child and is still married to the man today. Does that make his testimony more or less true?
What is it in us that seeks the truth? Is it our minds or is it our hearts?
I set out to prove a black man could receive a fair trial in the South, that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. That's not the truth, because the eyes of the law are human eyes -- yours and mine -- and until we can see each other as equals, justice is never going to be evenhanded. It will remain nothing more than a reflection of our own prejudices, so until that day we have a duty under God to seek the truth, not with our eyes and not with our minds where fear and hate turn commonality into prejudice, but with our hearts—where we don't know better.
Now I wanna tell you a story. I'm gonna ask ya'all to close your eyes while I tell you this story. I want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to yourselves.
This is a story about a little girl walking home from the grocery store one sunny afternoon. I want you to picture this little girl. Suddenly a truck races up. Two men jump out and grab her. They drag her into a nearby field and they tie her up, and they rip her clothes from her body. Now they climb on, first one then the other, raping her, shattering everything innocent and pure -- vicious thrusts -- in a fog of drunken breath and sweat. And when they're done, after they killed her tiny womb, murdered any chance for her to bear children, to have life beyond her own, they decide to use her for target practice. So they start throwing full beer cans at her. They throw 'em so hard that it tears the flesh all the way to her bones -- and they urinate on her.
Now comes the hanging. They have a rope; they tie a noose. Imagine the noose pulling tight around her neck and a sudden blinding jerk. She's pulled into the air and her feet and legs go kicking and they don't find the ground. The hanging branch isn't strong enough. It snaps and she falls back to the earth. So they pick her up, throw her in the back of the truck, and drive out to Foggy Creek Bridge and pitch her over the edge. And she drops some 30 feet down to the creek bottom below.
Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body, soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood -- left to die.
Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl.
Now imagine she's white.
The defense rests your honor.
Emotional Appeals for Justice
Just as in the movies, the closing argument is the emotional climax of a real-life jury trial. And just as in the movies, the real-life closing argument must engage the audience—the jury—and persuade and empower it to make the just decision. In both real life and fiction, closing arguments share the same purpose—to persuade.
Each of the closing arguments above seeks to use emotion to sway the jury into rendering the just verdict. By watching clips of these closing arguments one can see that the body language and physical movement of the attorney are almost as important as the words used in the argument. (Video clips of both are available on YouTube and other video internet sites.) Careful study of skilled actors giving fictional closing arguments can help a real-life attorney understand the relationship between tone, body language and word choice. Both of these arguments weave a call for justice through their closing. Neither spends much time on the facts of the case; rather, each attempts to harness the right versus wrong emotion of the audience. This is an effective technique in real life. Coupled with the body language and movement of the fictional attorneys, one can see how persuasion is a full body, full voice endeavor.
Charles Dresow is a partner at Ragghianti Freitas LLP. His practice focuses on representing those accused of crimes.