The film Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is probably the finest pure trial movie ever made. The film is based on a powerful 1958 novel by Robert Traver. It centers on a gripping small-town murder trial of lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara). James Stewart plays a small-town Michigan lawyer who takes on this difficult case: how to defend lieutenant Manion accused of murdering a local tavern owner who he believes raped his wife.

The trial is a slam-bang affair with wonderful twists and turns, always informed by a deep understanding of the unexpected dilemmas and quick decisions that confront every litigator.

The film is loaded with fascinating legal issues, such as the validity and applicability of the irresistible impulse version of the insanity defense. It raises numerous issues of trial practice, tactics, and ethics. It poses the issue of whether it is legal to prepare the witness and what are the limits.

In the famous dialogue, James Stewart skates close to the line of unethical witness coaching – that is, knowingly altering a witness’ story about the events in question. When the advocate first meets lieutenant Manion in jail, he manages to overcome the client’s intense mistrust and then the discussion turns to whether the client has a defense.

“If it was as you have just told me – you will get an electric chair. But, if it was differently, for instance you have been insanely enraged at this very moment – maybe we will have a chance to defend you” – says James Stewart to lieutenant Manion.

“Come tomorrow and tell me the story again” – continues James Stewart.

How far can an advocate go in suggesting a defense to a client who hasn’t a clue? And should the lawyer discuss possible defenses before asking the client what happened? Because once the client has told the advocate his story, that freezes the client’s version of the facts; it’s too late to mold the facts to fit a particular defense.

Clearly it is improper in any jurisdiction to assist the client to make up facts that never occurred. Typically the advocate must not “counsel or assist a witness to testify falsely.” But it’s perfectly OK (indeed obligatory) for the advocate to interview a witness and to discuss his testimony in order to assist the witness to testify effectively. And surely it is appropriate to tell a client what the law is, even if that suggests a defense to the client that he might not have realized was available. The problem is that a clever advocate can convey an implicit message to a witness that alters the witness’ testimony – without ever coming out and actually telling the witness to do it.

In the film, the advocate is obviously quite aware of the limits on witness coaching but most observers think he stayed on the ethical side of the line. Without first asking lieutenant Manion exactly what happened, he tells Manion about the categories of justification and excuse and rules out each possible claim. For example, killing in the defense of another is a possible justification – but not an hour after the purported rape occurred.

So James Stewart keeps Manion guessing until Manion says “I must have been mad.”

“Sorry, bad temper isn’t a defense” – says James Stewart.

“No,” says Manion, “I must have been crazy.” “Well, lieutenant,” replies the advocate, as he steps from the room, “in the meantime, see if you can remember how crazy you were.” So, the client comes up with the defense, albeit with a little help from his advocate.

It’s very rare for an advocate to be punished (criminally or ethically) for witness coaching, because the offense occurs in private. The great film Anatomy of a Murder makes us focus on the elusive distinctions between appropriate witness preparation and inappropriate coaching.

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