8 Things We've Learned From Watching Courtroom Dramas

[caption id="attachment_11772" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Fox Searchlight"]Conviction[/caption]

Getting a relative out of jail after they've been convicted of murder is, to vastly understate the obvious, highly improbable. But in the new drama "Conviction," Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) spends 18 years obtaining her high school, college and law degree and eventually has her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) exonerated for a murder he didn't commit.

The actual case seems more fantastical than anything Hollywood could imagine. But it got us thinking, us being mere legal laypeople and all, about everything we've learned from decades of courtroom dramas. Feel free to print this and keep in your wallet or purse the next time you're in front of a judge.

1. Make Sure Your Defense Lawyer is on Your Side

As Seen In: "And Justice For All" (1979)

When defense attorney Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) reluctantly agrees to defend his sworn enemy -- a judge he once punched after an argument -- of rape, so begins the gradual deterioration of Kirkland's sanity and acceleration of his integrity and moral well-being. Without giving too much away, the judge reveals more information about the charge than Kirkland's sense of right and wrong can allow. Yeah, it's fiction.

 

2. You May Not Even Know What You're On Trial For

As Seen In: "The Trial" (1962)

In this Orson Welles-directed Kafkaesque thriller -- mostly because it's based on the Franz Kafka book of the same name -- Anthony Perkins is Josef K, a mild-mannered corporate drone arrested for an unknown crime and forced to engage in a Sisyphean fight against the city's labyrinthine legal bureaucracy to clear his name. One of Welles' best films, the sense of paranoia and despair runs deep in every scene.

3. If You Want to Win in the Court of Public Opinion, Get Samuel L. Jackson

As Seen In: "A Time to Kill" (1996)

When two white supremacists rape and kill a 10-year-old black girl in small-town Mississippi, the girl's father (Samuel L. Jackson), sensing the two men would serve little to no time in jail, exacts vigilante justice and murders the assailants. A steady actor for two decades before John Grisham's novel became a film, this begins the still current phase of Jackson screaming the majority of his lines.

4. If Someone is Suing You, Use Their Own Pride Against Them...

As Seen In: "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" (1996)

Ostensibly a biography of Hustler publisher and ardent free speech advocate Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson), a centerpiece of this Milos Forman-directed film is Flynt's battles with prominent evangelical fundamentalist Reverend Jerry Falwell, who sued Flynt after the magazine published satirical content about Falwell. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Flynt, yet defense attorney Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton) shrewdly uses Falwell's hubris against him to prove his point.

5. Doubly So If It's A Military Trial

As Seen In: "A Few Good Men" (1992)

You'd think young, inexperienced military lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) would be outmatched by Colonel Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson), mainly because nobody messes with Nicholson no matter what movie he's in. But in one of the decade's most famous scenes, Cruise holds Nicholson to task and makes him admit to handing down the order that led to the death of a Marine. And thus, an overused catch phrase about truth-handling was born.

6. All It Takes Is One Holdout For A Defendant to Go Free

As Seen In: "12 Angry Men" (1957)

One of the cornerstones of the American judicial process is the necessity of an unanimous jury to determine a verdict. But what if it's 11-1? "12 Angry Men," adapted by Sidney Lumet from the play of the same name, sees Henry Fonda as the lone holdout in a case involving a teenage boy from the ghetto accused of murdering his father. The film brilliantly portrays the psychological, mental and logical (or illogical) factors in arriving at a decision based on factors that may have little to do with the actual case.

7. Imaginary Figures Can Have Their Day In Court Too

As Seen In: "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947)

In this holiday staple that that could double as a 96-minute commercial for Macy's, Kris Kringle is hired by the department store to put small children on his lap and promise them enticing toys from strangers. When Kringle claims to be the real Santa Claus and not some drunkard with a fake beard, he is committed to an institution and put on trial to prove his identity. The film remains a perennial classic.

8. Unemployed Mothers With No Legal Experience Can Bring Down Corporations

As Seen In: "Erin Brockovich" (2000)

Perhaps the closest antecedent to "Conviction," Julia Roberts plays the real-life titular character, an unemployed single mother who takes a job at a law firm and discovers improprieties and cover-ups by utility behemoth PG&E over the company's contamination of a town's water supply. The word "sassy" has never been used more in a review.