Hollywood has produced several great “legal movies”. And, when I say legal movies, I am not talking about the opposite of illegal ones. I am referring to courtroom dramas or movies dealing with the law. I have noticed that in most of these legal movies, the most exciting part is always the cross examination. There, we see lawyers wielding their immense knowledge of law as weapons used to extract justice from the witness’ mouths.
In truth, however, real-life cross-examinations do not turn out as beautifully as portrayed in movies. Whereas most movie cross-examinations end with the witness confessing to the crime, this does not really happen in real life. As in all movies, these legal depictions are usually exaggerated and over-dramatized. Notwithstanding this, however, I am a great fan of legal movies. And, despite the fact that I can probably never pull-off court-room stunts as depicted in movies, I still find valuable lessons in trial technique from these movie cross-examinations. Thus, I would like to share herein some of my favorites.
#7 – LEGALLY BLONDE
In normal circumstances, this would have been one of the worst cross-examinations ever. Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) started out having no idea of what she was doing. Instead of cross-examining the witness, she made a narration about Mens Rea. This is clearly improper during cross-examination because the lawyer should be questioning the witness and not making any arguments whatsoever. When she finally started her cross-examination, she was stuttering and repeating questions already asked. This, however, made it as my 7th best movie cross-examination for the very simple reason that this scene is downright funny. Here, we see that Elle Woods found her momentum when the witness mentioned getting a perm. Incidentally, Ms. Woods was an expert in the topic. Thus, she was able to discredit the witness and eventually elicit a confession by demonstrating inconsistencies between the witness’ testimony and the rules of hair care.
Despite being made purely for laughs, there is still a lesson to be learned here. As lawyers, it does not hurt to have knowledge on matters outside the law. You never know when “useless trivia” may be useful in court. I remember having proven that a witness is lying because of a seemingly “useless trivia”. It was a criminal case for serious physical injuries. The crime happened a year ago that time. The accused’s defense was alibi. According to him, when the crime happened, he was in this theme park, far from the crime scene. During his testimony, he said that he remembered everything he rode, including a roller coaster ride therein called the Space Shuttle. Unfortunately for him, I happen to know that the Space Shuttle ride had been the latest addition to that theme park and it was built just a few months before that court hearing. Hence, it was simply impossible for him to ride it, as it was not yet in existence a year ago. He was clearly lying and, because of this, was eventually convicted. Just like Elle Woods proved in this scene, useless trivia can sometimes win the day for you.
#6 – THE DARK KNIGHT
Among all the movies featured here, this is the only non-legal one. In fact, it is surprising that one of my favorite cross-examinations is from a superhero movie. But I definitely love this scene because it is simply a kick-ass. As lawyers, we often come face to face with hostile witnesses. But how do we deal with a real and literal hostile witness, one that actually points a gun in your face? Here, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) shows us all how to take on such a person.
#5 – A TIME TO KILL
What would a discussion on legal movies be without a John Grisham film? Indeed, he wrote most of the great legal novels, which were turned into some of the best legal movies ever. And, like a lot of good things in life, his first is still the best. “A Time to Kill” contained a lot of spectacular court scenes. The closing argument therein is one of the best I’ve seen. But since we are talking cross-examinations and not closing arguments, I included herein the part where Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey) was cross-examining Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson). Here we see Buckley use one of the most basic techniques in cross-examination — establishing ill motive. I, for one, make it a point to always include such technique in my cross-examinations. I always try to prove that the witness harbors ill feelings against my client. Depending on the gravity of the aversion shown, this will prove that the witness would be willing to do anything just to get back at my client, even lie in open court. This movie, however, took this trial technique to a whole new level. The line Buckley elicited from Carl Lee Hailey is legendary.
#4 – MY COUSIN VINNY
During trial, it is always prudent to emphasize on a specific matter or, as I’d like to call it “pound on the point”. This is especially true during cross-examination. Never leave a point without pounding on it. There are two reasons for this. The first is to make sure that the judge understands your argument. The second is for the benefit of justices during appeal. Unlike the trial court judge, who can see the demeanor of the witness, the appellate court justices only rely on the records. Hence, a sentence said in open court may just easily be brushed aside. But if a point is pounded on, they will be sure to notice it.
Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) demonstrated the effectivity of this technique in one of my favorite legal movies. Here, it did not take him long to prove that the witness was been mistaken in calculating the time of the incident in question. The witness’ testimony that the incident in question took place for only 20 minutes was proven impossible. But despite this, Mr. Gambini pounded on the point. And, aside from demonstrating a very good trial technique, this scene is absolutely funny as well. I laughed my heart out from the line he used, as a replacement for the usual “no further questions”.
#3 – LIAR LIAR
This is the most hilarious cross-examination I have ever seen. I remember the first time I watched this; I was literally rolling on the floor, laughing out loud. And, when I watched this again for this blog, I was surprised that, despite having watched it numerous times, I still laughed my brains out. I guess what I find most funny here is the truth and accuracy of this concept. As lawyers, we know when we do something wrong. In court, we are well aware that some of our questions are improper and objectionable. But, we do it anyway in the hope that both the opposing counsel and the judge would fail to notice our devious machinations. Well, imagine if we would be cursed into telling nothing but the truth and forced to object to our own questions. This is what happened to Fletcher Reed (Jim Carrey) in this movie. No one other than Jim Carrey could pull off such a funny scene.
#2 – THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE
There are two goals in cross-examination. The first one is to elicit favorable testimony from an adverse witness to strengthen your case. The second is to discredit the witness to weaken that of the opponent’s. In this movie, Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) demonstrated how to discredit a witness, Hollywood style. As he effectively shows in this scene, to successfully discredit a witness, the lawyer must do his research. A lawyer must have, in his artillery, important details relevant to the case that the witness failed to disclose. The lawyers must then reveal this information and, most importantly, emphasize on its non-disclosure. The goal is to make it appear that the witness is hiding something. This will portray the witness as one that cannot be trusted. Hence, his or her entire testimony becomes questionable. This is what Mr. Lomax did. He was able to make it appear that the witness, who is also the complainant therein, was not only hiding relevant information but was also motivated by malice and bad faith. And, despite the fact that it is obvious that the witness was telling the truth, her entire complaint was thrown out of the window. Because of a well-researched cross-examination, the rape victim was suddenly transformed into a lying disgruntled student who simply wanted to destroy a strict teacher that she so hated. No wonder lawyers are said to be the devil’s advocates.
#1 – A FEW GOOD MEN
In real life, this cross-examination would have turned into a disaster. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) had no evidence whatsoever against Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson). He had absolutely no idea how Jessup would answer his questions. Kaffee questioned Jessup in the hope of eliciting a favorable testimony from him. This is a classic case of what we call a “fishing expedition”. It is absolutely improper in cross-examination. But, lo and behold! It worked. After the end of his examination, Kaffee was able to elicit not only a confession from Col. Jessup, but also one hell of a monologue.
What is the lesson we learn here? Simple. Hollywood rocks! Like I stated earlier, this would never happen in real life. A witness would never confess in court. This, however, is on top of my list of best cross-examinations for the simple reason that this scene is absolutely awesome. Seeing two great actors deliver great dialogues will definitely make you forget that this is purely fiction.