1 The Man Who Talked Too Much (1940) Steve Forbes, a delinquent lawyer to the criminal underworld, defends a man accused of murder by poisoning. In court, Forbes drinks from the bottle of alleged poison to prove that the victim did not die from its contents. Forbes, though, had earlier been told by a doctor that the poison would take an hour to work, so as soon as the jury acquitted his client he went to have his stomach pumped.
2 Criminal Court (1946) In court, a gangster called Brown testifies that he saw the defendant walk up to a man with a gun and kill him. Cross-examining Brown, the defendant’s lawyer starts shouting angrily about perjury, takes out a gun and waves it around. Everyone dives for cover, including Brown who cowers behind his witness seat. The armed lawyer then asks the jury to get up, look at Brown and decide whether this frightened man really was likely to have calmly witnessed the murder.
3 Miracle on 34th Street (1947) When Kris Kringle, a nice old man who claims to be Santa Claus, is institutionalised as insane, a young lawyer defends him by arguing in court that Kringle really is Father Christmas. Just before Christmas, 50,000 letters addressed to Santa Claus are delivered to Kringle at the court. As the postal service is a branch of the federal Government, Kringle is thereby officially recognised and he wins his freedom.
4 Witness for the Prosecution (1957) A man accused of murder has an alibi from his wife but she suddenly withdraws it and becomes a witness for the prosecution. Sir Wilfrid Robarts, defence counsel, suggests that she wants to incriminate her husband so she can have a relationship with another man. In court, Robarts reads from a large white letter in which she mentions the scheme to her lover. She denies its authenticity, saying she writes letters on small blue sheets of paper. Robarts pulls such a sheet from under other papers, explaining that the white sheet from which he had apparently been “reading” was a bill from his tailor for a new pair of Bermuda shorts.
5 Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969) Judge Mr Larch, you heard the case for the prosecution. Is there anything you wish to say before I pass sentence?
Harold Larch Well … I’d just like to say, m’lud, I’ve got a family … a wife and six kids … and I hope very much you don’t have to take away my freedom … because … well, because m’lud freedom is a state much prized within the realm of civilised society. [Becomes impassioned] It is a bond wherewith the savage man may charm the outward hatchments of his soul, and soothe the troubled breast into a magnitude of quiet. It is most precious as a blessed balm, the saviour of princes, the harbinger of happiness, yea, the very stuff and pith of all we hold most dear. … Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!
Judge It’s only a bloody parking offence.
6 Bananas (1971) Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen), the President of San Marcos, is prosecuted for conspiracy to overthrow the American Government. In court, he represents himself. He examines himself by asking each question from the well of the court, lunging into the witness box to answer it, then darting back to the court floor to ask himself the next question.
7 The Secret Policeman’s Ball (1979) In 1979 Jeremy Thorpe, the former Liberal Party leader, was prosecuted for incitement to murder. The judge gave a preposterously biased summing-up to the jury in favour of Thorpe. In a parodic sketch Peter Cook plays a biased judge. Addressing the jury he says: “You may choose, if you wish, to believe the transparent tissue of odious lies that streamed on and on from [the prosecution witness’s] disgusting, greedy, slavering lips. That is entirely a matter for you … You are now to retire … carefully to consider your verdict of ‘not guilty’.”
8 From the Hip (1987) Robin Weathers defends an academic accused of murder. A police officer testifies that the defendant had been driving with the victim’s bloodied clothes and a hammer under his car seat. Weathers argues that the defendant did not know about those items, and, while cross-examining the officer, extracts a rabbit in a cage from under the witness seat to demonstrate the point that we don’t always know what is under our seats.
9 My Cousin Vinny (1992) In this comedy, two young men are mistaken for murderers while on holiday in Alabama. Vincent Gambini (Joe Pesci), a New York mechanic who has just qualified as a lawyer, goes to defend them.
Gambini Your Honour, may I have permission to treat Ms Vito as a hostile witness?
Ms Vito You think I’m hostile now, wait ‘til you see me tonight.
Judge Do you two know each other?
Gambini Yeah, she’s my fiancée.
Judge Well, that would certainly explain the hostility.
10 Blow (2001) George Jung, a drug dealer, was once tried for possession of 660lb of marijuana.
George … I think it’s illogical and irresponsible for you to sentence me to prison. Because … what did I really do? I crossed an imaginary line with a bunch of plants … You say you’re looking for someone who’s never weak but always strong, to gather flowers constantly whether you are right or wrong, someone to open each and every door, but it ain’t me, babe, huh? No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe. It ain’t me you’re looking for, babe.
Judge Unfortunately for you, the line you crossed was real and the plants you brought with you were illegal, so your bail is $20,000.
Gary Slapper is Professor of Law at the Open University.