Menu Close

Tag: criminal trials

Inherit the Wind (1960) – The Courtroom as Soapbox

SayakDasgupta_InCameraIn 1960, John T. Scopes, a geologist, returned to Dayton, a town in Tennessee where 35 years earlier, he had been convicted of a crime. Instead of being scorned and spurned, he was celebrated and awarded a key to the city. He had returned to attend the premiere of Inherit the Wind, a film that had been made on his trial. The film, boasting of some of the biggest names in Hollywood, was supposed to tell the true story of the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial, but it didn’t. Its intention was to use the trial to make a very different point. Then again, even the original trial was not much more than a farce.

The making of the film trial

On January 21, 1925 Rep. John Washington Butler introduced a bill in the Tennessee House of Representatives “prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.” The Butler Act, as it came to be known, was enacted six days later. This ban on teaching evolution in public schools in Tennessee was reported in newspapers all over America and came to the notice of a young organisation in New York called the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which advocated for freedom of thought and expression regardless of political leanings. It put out a notice in newspapers inviting any teacher from Tennessee to challenge the law. “We are looking for a Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing the law in the courts,” it said. “Our lawyers think a friendly test can be arranged without costing a teacher his or her job. Distinguished counsel have volunteered their services. All we need is a willing client.” Enter George Washington Rappleyea.

George Rappleyea, the man who wanted to put Dayton on the map.

George Rappleyea, the man who wanted to put Dayton on the map.

Rappleyea was the Superintendent of the financially floundering Cumberland Coal and Iron Company in Dayton, Tennessee. He read ACLU’s notice and the very next day, met a group of influential men of Dayton and suggested that the law should be challenged in their town. He foresaw that the resulting trial would bring national attention and definitely put Dayton on the map – something that must have appealed to everyone as Dayton was going through hard times. Rappleyea convinced a young schoolteacher called John T. Scopes to be the challenger even though Scopes couldn’t remember if he had actually ever taught evolution in his classroom.

None of these events leading up to the trial are shown in Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind. The film begins with Bertram Cates (Dick York), a fictionalised version of John Scopes, teaching evolution openly in a Southern town called Hillsboro. While Scopes was ambivalent about the law until Rappleyea convinced him to challenge it, Cates is presented almost as a heroic crusader completely unwavering in his noble convictions. None of the prior machinations that led to the original trial are even alluded to.

A well-known reporter named E.K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) comes to Hillsboro to cover the trial. Amidst his sarcastic quips and witty one-liners, he informs Cates that his employer, the Baltimore Herald, is willing to finance his defence. The acerbic, cynical Hornbeck is the fictional cognate of H.L. Mencken, the famous and influential reporter who covered the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial. Mencken was a staunch atheist and detested fundamentalists and “southern yokels”, calling them “ignoramuses” and “morons”. He was also a racist and anti-Semite who distrusted democracy deeply, which made him a natural opponent of the prosecution attorney: William Jennings Bryan.

Above, Gene Kelly and Dick York playing E.K. Horseback and Bertram Cates in Inherit The Wind (1960). Below, H.L. Mencken the journalist and John T. Scopes the geologist (right), the real-life figures that these actors portrayed.

Above, Gene Kelly and Dick York playing E.K. Hornbeck and Bertram Cates in Inherit The Wind (1960). Below, H.L. Mencken the journalist and John T. Scopes the geologist (right), the real-life figures that these actors portrayed.

The prosecuting attorney in Inherit the Wind, Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) is a Bible-thumping, chicken-devouring, moralising caricature of Bryan. Everything about the look of the character – from his baldpate to his pince-nez to the cut of his shirt – is modeled to be identical to that of Bryan’s. In many ways ahead of his time, Bryan had spent a lifetime fighting for farmers, women’s suffrage, and campaign finance reforms, and raising his voice against imperialism and corrupt corporate practices in the early 1900s. But all we see is a screaming blowhard trying desperately to cling to his woefully outdated beliefs. A Bible literalist, his distaste for the theory of evolution came not just from his religious views but also from his mistaken conflation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the concept of Social Darwinism – a system of thought that often rationalises racism, eugenics, fascism, and imperialism.

Above, Spencer Tracy and Frederic March playing Mathew Harrison Brady, the prosecuting attorney and Henry Drummond, the defense attorney in a scene from Inherit The Wind (1960). Below, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the lawyers who came up against each other in the Scopes 'Monkey' Trial.

Above, Spencer Tracy and Fredric March playing Mathew Harrison Brady, the prosecuting attorney and Henry Drummond, the defense attorney in a scene from Inherit The Wind (1960). Below, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the lawyers who came up against each other in the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial.

Cates’ defense attorney is Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), a fictionalised version of Clarence Darrow, who, in 1925 was perhaps the most famous lawyer in the country, having argued a number of high profile cases. Like Mencken, Darrow was a modernist and atheist, inspired by the writings of Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Voltaire. He had once been a friend of Bryan and had even supported him in his first presidential campaign, but the two had later parted ways due to the stark differences in their thinking (a fact that is reflected in the film as well). When he heard Bryan had joined the prosecution team, Darrow immediately decided to join the defence to battle “the idol of all Morondom”.

The greatest show in America

Scenes from Inherit The Wind (1960)

Scenes from Inherit The Wind (1960)

The film accurately portrays the media circus this trial became. In an unprecedented turn of events WGN Radio managed to obtain the rights to rearrange the way the courtroom was set up. Despite a burning heat wave in Dayton that year, hundreds of people crowded into the courtroom to witness this clash of titans and their ideas. Journalists sat with typewriters and microphones recording every instant of this great show as if it were a boxing match. Outside the courtroom was a veritable carnival centred around the trial. Shops sold monkey-themed memorabilia, songs written about the trial were sung on the streets, and a pet chimpanzee named Joe Mendy was brought out in a new suit everyday for the amusement of one and all. This fanfare is faithfully portrayed in Inherit the Wind. The people of Dayton, however, are not.

The film paints the residents of Hillsboro (read Dayton) as an angry, ignorant mob ready to lynch Cates. This was, by all accounts, patently untrue. Even Mencken wrote, “The town, I must confess, greatly surprised me. I expected to find a squalid Southern village, with darkies snoozing on the horseblocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria. What I found was a country town full of charm and even beauty […] Nor is there any evidence in the town of that poisonous spirit which usually shows itself when Christian men gather to defend the great doctrine of their faith. […] On the contrary, the Evolutionists and Anti-Evolutionists seem to be on the best of terms, and it is hard to distinguish one group from another.”

From the beginning, Judge Raulston had instructed the jury, prosecution, and defence to keep the trial about the case in hand – Scopes’ contravention of the Butler Act – and not to argue whether the law itself was just or unjust. Of course, neither Darrow nor Bryan had any intention of obeying the judge. As far as both were concerned, this was the most important philosophical and cultural tipping point in their lifetimes. It was the debate that would decide what civilisation itself stands for. Scopes’ ultimate fate meant very little to Darrow. In fact, he hoped that Scopes would be found guilty so that he could appeal to a higher court and argue the merits of the Butler Act there.

The verdict

In the end, the jury in the film, like the one in real life, returns a verdict of “guilty”. And, like the judge in the actual trial, the one in the film goes easy on the defendant, keeping in view the mood of the nation. Cates, like Scopes, is fined $100 and given no jail time. In a sense, both Bryan and Darrow got what they wanted. Bryan got a guilty verdict and, hence, a moral victory, even though he was displeased with the inadequacy of the sentence. Darrow got the opportunity to argue the validity of the law at the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In the film, as indeed in real life, the trial was not really about the case at hand but an opportunity to argue about differing viewpoints, the lawyers on both sides representing not the state and the accused, but two opposing schools of thought. The courtroom became a venue for debating ideology, a soapbox atop which each lawyer, acting as the spokesperson for his side, could stand and deliver loud and impassioned political speeches. So impassioned, in fact, that Brady quite literally screams himself to death. He collapses in the courtroom and dies of a “busted belly”. It is the death knell of an ideology whose time has come. In real life, Bryan had died five days after the trial was over. This too, is a minor liberty.

Charles Darwin, the title page of The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex (1871) and a figure from the book.

Charles Darwin, the title page of The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex (1871), and a figure from the book.

The film, therefore, takes all the liberties it deems necessary to make its statement. A lot of the complexities in the characters are done away with in order to reduce them from fully-fleshed people to mere archetypes, the nuances in the arguments and ideas presented are erased to tell a more straightforward story, and a number of important facts that are necessary to contextualise the story correctly are conveniently sacrificed to make a point. And what was the point?

If your answer to that question is something along the lines of “scientific and rational thought is superior to blind faith”, then you’re wrong. Inherit the Wind was adapted from a 1955 play of the same name written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. In an interview, Lawrence had said, “We used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control. It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think.” And why did the writers suddenly feel so compelled to make this point about the right to think? The answer, in a word, is McCarthyism.

McCarthy vs. Free Thought

In the late 1940s, Americans were gripped by the fear of that giant, looming, faceless threat advancing from around the globe: Communism. The Red Scare sent shivers down the spines of patriots and lovers of the American dream. In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy entered the scene, took that latent fear and whipped it up to the highest levels of mass hysteria and moral panic by painting communists as traitors and Soviet spies living among Americans and infiltrating positions of power and influence. He began a fearsome campaign to identify and convict them. Thousands of Americans would be publicly named, questioned, interrogated, and threatened based on next to no evidence. It was akin to being labeled a terrorist today – they were put on a watchlist, their private lives were investigated, they lost their jobs and became social pariahs. It was one of the darkest moments in modern American history, much like the Emergency was for India.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy, who served as a U.S. Senator between 1947 and 1957, was noted for his claims that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathisers inside the United States federal government and elsewhere.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy, who served as a U.S. Senator between 1947 and 1957, was noted for his claims that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathisers inside the United States federal government and elsewhere.

In 1953, Arthur Miller, who was investigated by McCarthy, used the 17th century Salem witch trials to make a lasting statement on McCarthyism in his play The Crucible. This inspired Lawrence and Lee to write Inherit the Wind. Speaking of the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial, Lawrence said, “We thought, ‘Here’s another time when there was a corset on your intellectual and artistic spirit.” It was, therefore, perhaps fitting that director and producer Stanley Kramer hired Nedrick Young, a blacklisted screenwriter, to assist in adapting the play for the big screen.

Fact and fiction

At the end of the film, it is revealed that Drummond is actually a practicing Christian. Hornbeck is taken aback and berates him strongly. Drummond says he pities Hornbeck and asks him, “You don’t need anything, do you? People. Love. An idea just to cling to. You poor slob. You’re all alone. When you go to the grave there won’t be anyone to pull the grass up over your head. Nobody to mourn you. Nobody to give a damn. You’re all alone.” Hornbeck replies: “You’re wrong, Henry. You’ll be there. You’re the type. Who else would defend my right to be lonely?” This Voltaire-esque reply is one of the most poignant parts of the film, and in a way, its most moving comment on the McCarthy era. The loneliness of having an unpopular opinion is frightening, but the right to have an independent thought is one that should be defended zealously. The film closes with Drummond picking up a copy of the Bible and Darwin’s The Descent of Man, thumping them together and walking out of the courtroom, showing in no uncertain terms that it is possible for two opposing ideas to live together.

The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned Scopes’ conviction on January 15, 1927, not on the grounds of the unconstitutionality of the Butler Act, but on a relatively minor technicality. Judge Raulston had imposed the $100 fine. However, under the constitution of Tennessee, any fine in excess of $50 has to be assessed by a jury. Reversing the lower court’s judgment, the Tennessee Supreme Court stated, “We see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case. On the contrary, we think the peace and dignity of the State, which all criminal prosecutions are brought to redress, will be better conserved by the entry of a nolle prosequi herein. The Butler Act would remain in force for 40 more years. It was finally repealed on May 17, 1967.

Inherit the Wind is, therefore, a film about an actual trial, but it isn’t really about the trial. The actual trial was about a man who was accused of committing a crime, but it wasn’t really about the man or the crime. It was a platform for the voicing of opinions on larger questions. With the help of carefully planned and calculated moves made right from the beginning, the trial had ceased to be a process of dispensing justice and was turned into a dais for making political speeches. In much the same way, Inherit the Wind took the events and personalities that shaped the trial, shaved off the inconvenient bits that came in the way of the point it was trying to make, and ultimately presented an inaccurate version of what happened.

It is perhaps the only instance of the real trial being as much of a fiction as the celluloid trial.

(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around myLaw looking for things to do.)

Written by myLaw

Nanavati v. Maharashtra, the sensational true case behind Rustom (2016)

The Nanavati Trial-Cover Image-01

Click here to watch the video

Rustom, released today, is Akshay Kumar’s latest movie. You probably know that it is based on a true story, but do you know the details of the sensational trial on which it is based? The real story is far more explosive and dramatic than any fictional film could possibly be.

K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra had all the elements of a thrilling potboiler but it involved real people and events. The cast of the actual case became more famous than movie stars – not just K.M. Nanavati, Sylvia Nanavati, and Prem Ahuja, who were involved in the actual incidents, but even those involved in the subsequent trials, including Y.V Chandrachud, Karl Khandalavala, and Ram Jethmalani. Moreover, the case became forever etched in the legal history of India as the last jury trial held in the country.

Join us as we delve into the events, personalities, and the unbelievable twists and turns of this true story that probably became the first instance of a trial by media in India. With the help of Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde and legal historian Kalyani Ramnath, we explore how this case has affected the way we deal with circumstantial evidence, what “grave and sudden provocation” means, the Governor’s power to grant pardons, and much more. We also ask the big question: Should the jury trial be brought back?

Written by myLaw

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – The Courtroom as Chessboard

SayakDasgupta_InCamera

I can’t claim to know a lot about chess. I mean I know the basic rules, but put me up against even a semi-competent 6-year-old and I would probably struggle to hold my own. Ask me what a “Sicilian Defence” is and I would guess Vito Corleone’s attorney. Mention “Scotch Game” and I would assume you were challenging me to a round of “Who can drink more Glenlivet?” But as an outsider, I am endlessly fascinated by chess, in much the same way as I am fascinated by quantum mechanics. My rudimentary understanding of the subject gives me enough of an idea of the big, complex things to be intrigued and beguiled by them, but I can barely wrap my head around their intricate workings.

Not just a game

Chess, of course, is a world in itself. Contained within the sprawl of those 64 squares are millions of moves and gambits, hundreds of memorable matches, and 1700 years of history spanning the entire globe. It is not surprising that for chess enthusiasts, the sun can rise and set on that chequered board. For them, chess becomes more than a mere game. Take, for instance, one of the greatest games of chess ever played: the World Chess Championship match of 1972 between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky – the subject of numerous articles, books, documentaries, and at least one major film. Played at the height of the Cold War, the match came to represent far more than a simple game of chess. No one put it better than one of the greatest players of all time, Garry Kasparov: “I think the reason you looked at these matches probably was not so much the chess factor but for the political element, which was inevitable, because in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. So that’s why Boris Spassky’s defeat in 1972, when Bobby Fischer took the crown from the hands of the Soviet Chess School… Since 1948, the chess title was firmly in the hands of Soviet players. This event was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crunch moment in the midst of the Cold War. Big intellectual victory for the United States and huge, painful, almost insulting defeat for the Soviet Union.”

“But, contrary to popular belief,” Kasparov added, “Chess was never part of the education system in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities had no interest in actually using chess – which I believe has the unique ability to enhance cognitive skills of kids – to use this in the schools, because all they wanted was just to find talent. So it was an investment to make sure that the top tier of Soviet chess would be always reinforced by new talent coming from the bottom of this pyramid.” Winning a game of chess became an end in itself. And it’s not difficult to see how that could happen. Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) is the story of two noblemen of Lucknow who are so consumed by the game that they fail to realise that Awadh has fallen to the hands of the British. And for all the fuss kicked up over the global political ramifications of the Fischer-Spassky match, wasn’t it much ado about almost nothing? The Cold War would continue for another 19 years. Bobby Fischer, who suffered from various psychological issues including paranoid personality disorder, would refuse to defend his title, which would go to a new Soviet Grandmaster, Anatoly Karpov, who would remain world champion for another decade. Nothing really changed. Despite the historic defeats and victories on the chessboard, the real world takes its own course. And this, it would seem, is what many also believe about the judicial system.

Not just a court drama

WitnessFortheProsecutionBilly Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), based on a play adapted from Agatha Christie’s short story of the same name, is a classic that is considered one of the greatest legal dramas ever made (placed 6th on the American Film Institute’s List of Top 10 Courtroom Dramas), which is a well-deserved accolade, given its clever plot, tight pacing, sharp dialogue and some truly memorable performances by the actors. But what really stayed with me is what the film seemed to say about the relationship between the trial process and justice.

Before I move on to the plot, I should warn you that the film hinges on a major twist that the filmmakers were very careful not to divulge. In fact, at the end of the film, a voice-over says: “The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.” It is said that Marlene Dietrich may have lost out on an Oscar purely because of the studio’s unwillingness to campaign for her lest they inadvertently give away the ending. Of course, this was much before the days of the Internet – a simple Google search for the film will lead you to hundreds of pages that will readily reveal the ending. This is also before the “twist ending” became a gimmick for every other movie (M. Night Shyamalan, I’m looking at you). The film is now almost 60 years old – whatever novelty the surprise ending once had has surely been around for long enough for us to be able to talk about it. But, if you haven’t seen the film yet and feel that spoilers will completely destroy the film for you, consider yourself warned. Go watch it, come back and read the rest.

**MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT**

Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is an accomplished and respected barrister who has just recently suffered a terrible heart attack. Despite the remonstrations of his nurse Ms. Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), he takes on a murder case that has been making the headlines in England. Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), an unemployed young man, is accused of murdering Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden), a rich older widow. He had befriended her hoping that she would some day lend him money to finance the mass production of a new kind of eggbeater that he has invented. While he had received no money from her when she was alive, Mrs. French has left him a large sum in her will. Naturally, this makes Vole the prime suspect. Believing him to be innocent, Sir Wilfrid agrees to represent him in the trial. Vole has an alibi – he was home with his wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) at the time the murder is supposed to have been committed – and he is quite certain that she will testify to that fact. She has already confirmed the alibi in her statement to the police. However, when Sir Wilfrid interviews her in the hope of putting her on the stand as a witness for the defence, she turns out to be cold and completely unsympathetic to her husband’s plight.

WItnessForTheProsecutionMarleneDietrichChristineChristine is a German actress who had met Vole while he was serving in the Second World War. She reveals to Sir Wilfrid that she had only married him to get out of war-ravaged Germany, and that her marriage to Vole is actually void as she had already been married to another German man before she had even met Vole. Sir Wilfrid immediately decides not to put her on the stand and tells her that, by law, she cannot give incriminating testimony against her husband. However, during the trial he is shocked when Christine appears as a witness for prosecution. His objection is overruled when it is proved in court that since Christine was already a married woman when she married Vole, she cannot legally be considered his wife – spousal privilege does not apply and she can testify against him. (The law of spousal privilege no longer applies in quite that way in England. While a person cannot be compelled to testify against her/his spouse, s/he has a right to testify if s/he so wishes.) Christine testifies against Vole, denying that he was with her at the time of the murder and contradicting all the statements made in his defence. Vole’s case seems to be completely destroyed. However, just when all hope seems to be lost, Sir Wilfrid gets a call from a woman who, for a substantial sum of money, hands him a bunch of letters written by Christine to a lover, Max, in which she has written about her plot to destroy her “husband”. Armed with this fresh evidence, Sir Wilfrid discredits Christine’s testimony, proving that she has perjured herself. The jury acquits Vole.

Not just a twist

WitnessForTheProsecutionLeonardVoleTyronePowerHowever, as promised, there is a twist in the tale. It turns out that Christine is actually very much in love with Vole. Realising that “no jury would believe an alibi given by a loving wife”, Christine had decided to become a witness for the prosecution and orchestrate a chain of events that would lead to the jurors believing that she had lied under oath to get her husband in trouble. There was no Max – she had painstakingly written fake letters to an imaginary lover to fool the court. The woman who had given the letters to Sir Wilfrid had, in fact, been Christine in disguise (a truly stunning performance by Marlene Dietrich and a fantastic job by the make-up artist; I genuinely had no clue it was her the first time I watched the film). She reveals all of this to Sir Wilfrid after the trial is over along with the chilling fact that Vole had murdered Mrs. French. However, her dreams of reuniting with her “husband” are dashed when Vole, pleased with his acquittal and newfound wealth, tells her that he is leaving her for another woman. When she threatens to go to the authorities and confess to her perjury, he laughs it off, saying he can’t be convicted for the same crime again (we should take another quick moment to note that double jeopardy doesn’t quite work that way – cases can be reopened on the basis of fresh evidence). Enraged at her lover’s infidelity, Christine uses the knife that had been used to murder Mrs. French, to stab Vole to death. When Ms. Plimsoll declares, “She killed him,” Sir Wilfrid corrects her, “She executed him.” As the film comes to an end, he decides to represent Christine in her murder trial.

At the time Witness for the Prosecution was made, the penalty for murder was death (capital punishment for murder was abolished in England in 1965), and so, the film seems to suggest that justice has been done. It also seems to state that the legal system had nothing to do with it. True justice, it seems to say, is an independent concept that stands removed from the process of arriving at justice. The idea that justice by its very nature is a divine, elevated concept marred by flawed and ineffectual corporeal legal systems is not a new one, and is reiterated time and again in various works of fiction. A good example is Graham Greene’s short story The Case for the Defence. A man accused of murder is acquitted because he has an identical twin brother and the eyewitnesses cannot be certain which twin they saw at the scene. But as the brothers walk out of the courthouse, one of them is run over by a bus and dies instantaneously. Although we never really find out whether this was the twin who committed the murder, the narrator hints at an act of divine vengeance. But, once again, the larger point here seems to be that judicial mechanisms are easily manipulated and true justice can only be achieved outside the boundaries of law.

WitnessForTheProsecutionCharlesLaughlinWilfridRobartsFilms and literature often view the trial process like a game of chess, a self-absorbed exercise in futility with strict rules, prone to becoming an end in itself rather than a means to achieve justice. Like chess, the trial becomes nothing more than a competition of wit and cunning, in which clever practitioners can carefully plan their every move, employing every devastating tactic, strategy and gambit in their arsenal to foil their opponents and achieve victory. The players in the system tend to lose sight of the forest for the trees. The trial itself becomes more important than dispensing justice. You can call this outlook cynical, but is it entirely untrue? I’m not sure it is.

Not just a coincidence

But what does this say about the filmmakers’ and perhaps the audience’s perception of the judicial process? Is it that courts of justice really have no agency at all? That the trial is a sham, a sideshow, so much window dressing and going through the motions? Is it, like the Shakespearean idiot’s tale, full of sound and fury signifying nothing? In Witness for the Prosecution, “justice” is delivered through the stabbing hand of Christine, an extra-judicial act of vigilantism that, in the eyes of the film, is not criminal but necessary. In The Case for the Defence, “justice” is seemingly completely beyond the realm of human action and has to be meted out by an act of God. It betrays our weakness for an individual mover and our suspicion of faceless systems. It’s why in our popular fiction, heroes are godlike and government agencies are Kafka-esque. In her final act of vengeance, Christine is Batman, dispensing justice where the legal system failed, while Sir Wilfrid is Commissioner Gordon, a part of the system who watches helplessly as it fails the cause of justice and then decides to work from inside to help the hero.

While speaking about the Fischer-Spassky match of 1972, Garry Kasparov said, “Bobby Fischer was a great player, but he was like a lonely warrior, a guy from Brooklyn taking on the mighty Soviet Chess School. […] Mathematically speaking, the chance of finding Bobby Fischer was miniscule, so Fischer was some kind of miracle while the almost assembly line of champions in the Soviet Union was quite predictable because of the massive investment of the state into the chess infrastructure.” A lonely warrior triumphing over a larger system. Doesn’t that narrative sound familiar? It would seem that, like the trial, the game of chess, with its cold, technical precision and its self-contained, self-regulated mechanism of cause and effect, is not immune to the influence of the fairy tale flights of fancy of the outside world. And even on a square board, it is possible to come full circle.

(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around myLaw looking for things to do.)

Written by myLaw

Damini (1993) – The Courtroom as Theatre

SayakDasgupta_InCamera

 

(The criminal trial has proved to be a most useful literary, dramatic, and cinematic device. It finds place in some of humanity’s earliest texts and in some of its greatest – Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky for example, made abundant use of the criminal trial to explore good and evil and the complexities of justice and judicial decision-making. Cinema too has found it hard to resist the lure of pitting individuals and belief systems against each other in a courtroom. In Camera is Sayak Dasgupta’s series of essays that examine the depictions of trials in cinema. He will look at how filmmakers have chosen to use trials and the criminal justice processes and what those depictions tell us about their view of cinema and the societies they made those films for.)

It’s one of the most potent and lasting images in Indian cinema: Sunny Deol standing in a courtroom in a gown and band screaming in his eardrum-shattering, nails-on-a-chalkboard voice, the famous (or infamous, depending on how you see it) lines: “Tareekh par tareekh, tareekh par tareekh, tareekh par tareekh, tareekh par tareekh milti rahi hai! Lekin insaaf nahin mila, milord! Insaaf nahin mila! Mili hai to sirf yeh tareekh!” followed by a peculiar sound effect that resembles the cracking of a whip. Every time Sunny Deol shrieks “tareekh” the whip-sound is used to underline the point. These lines have become, for better or worse, a cultural milestone. Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini is perhaps most well known for just this one scene. The sentiment expressed in that piece of dialogue is reflected by several members of the legal community. In a myLaw interview, Soli Sorabjee himself called adjournments “the greatest curse” plaguing the judiciary. But it isn’t what was said in that scene in Damini that is interesting. It is how it was said.

Trial and error

The trial in Hindi cinema is a strange creature. Often it has almost no connection with reality. While the courtroom is a place governed by exceedingly strict rules of procedure, evidence, and conduct, all rules are suspended in the Bollywood version. Anyone can walk into the courtroom and offer testimony in the form of dramatic monologue, new facts and witnesses can be presented as a surprise element, a lawyer can pick up a bottle of medicine that has been presented as material evidence and drink it up to prove that it is not poison, and, as in the case of Damini, a defense attorney can even conduct his own version of a police lineup in the courtroom by presenting a bunch of men, faces covered in Holi colours, and shoving them onto the witness. There were several moments in the movie that made me clutch my head and exclaim, “What the hell is going on here?” But I don’t want to write about the legal and procedural inaccuracies in Hindi films. Films from all over the world have always played fast and loose with how legal systems work. Instead, I want to observe how the trial process has been represented in popular Hindi cinema and understand what that says about our collective perception of our system of dispensing justice. I decided to start with Damini simply because the lines from the film that I have mentioned above have left such an indelible mark on the Indian filmgoer’s psyche that even 23 years after the release of the film, they are still the first lines that come to mind when you mention law and film in the same sentence. Last year, we had conducted a light-hearted contest in which we had asked our followers on Facebook and Twitter to send in Dubsmash videos of themselves mouthing lines from any law-related movie. Over 80 per cent of the entries were of people vigorously enacting Sunny Deol’s “tareekh par tareekh” primal scream. Most of them were law students who hadn’t even been born when Damini was released.

But despite the incredible staying power of its dialogues, I realised that Damini is a very typically melodramatic ‘90s Bollywood movie that hasn’t aged very well. While it certainly means well with its strong denunciation of the treatment of women in India, it is often unbearably clunky and heavy handed.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

The story so far

To briefly recount the story, Damini (Meenakshi Seshadri) is a small town girl who belongs to a lower middle class family. She is spotted by Shekhar (Rishi Kapoor), the son of a major industrialist from Bombay, and it’s love at first sight. Shekhar marries her and takes her to Bombay, but his family treats her more like a servant than a bahu. She befriends and becomes very close to the maid, Urmi (Prajakta Kulkarni). Several days go by and one day when the family is celebrating Holi at home, Damini witnesses Shekhar’s brother Rakesh (Ashwin Kaushal) and his friends raping Urmi. She tries to stop them but fails as they push her out of the room and lock the door. She rushes to get Shekhar and when the both of them manage to break the door, the rapists pick up a now unconscious Urmi, drive her away in a car and dump her at the side of a road. When the police come to question the family, they claim that the rape had not occurred in their home and that they had no knowledge of it. Shekhar convinces Damini to lie as well. However, Damini’s conscience eventually compels her to tell the truth to the police. Shekhar’s father, Mr. Gupta (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), hires “Barrister” Indrajit Chaddha (Amrish Puri), a suspender-snapping, hair-flicking, unscrupulous, slimy shyster as his son’s defence attorney. The trial begins.

BarristerChadha_AmrishPuriIt is interesting to pause here and note that the first lawyer we are introduced to is the utter embodiment of evil, representing absolutely every negative cliché in existence about a lawyer. Far be it from the film giving us a more complex lawyer character who must painfully grapple with the moral dilemma of representing a rapist, we are given evil incarnate, a man who actually believes that rape is no big deal and will go to any lengths to get his client off. A man we can safely hate. When the trial begins, neither the victim nor the accused are seen in court. The victim is in the hospital because of the severe injuries she has sustained from the rape. But the accused? There’s no explanation for their absence. What we see instead is Damini on trial. I found this erasure quite bizarre. Damini could have been the story of a rape survivor’s fight for justice. Instead, the story relegates the rape victim to the sidelines in her own case. In fact the victim doesn’t even survive the trial.

As the only witness who is willing to come forward Damini is put up on the stand and Chaddha proceeds to prove that she is insane. He does this by getting Shekhar’s family and Damini’s own father (Anjan Srivastav) to cook up false stories. He does not produce a single psychiatrist, doctor, or medical document to prove her insanity. Which seems to be fine with the court. Thanks to Chaddha’s cunning plan, Damini is committed to a mental facility, her testimony is discredited and the accused are released. At a later stage he encourages his client to get Damini murdered. Once again, it’s important to note here that Chaddha is not just following his client’s orders here. He is actively hatching the evil plots and advising his client to do evil things out of his own innate evilness. What we need to keep in mind here is that the film shows him as “the lawyer”. He is referred to as “Barrister” and at one point Sunny Deol calls him “kanoon ke dalal”.

The question of agency

The fact that the protagonist of Damini is a woman witness who battles against all odds to get justice for the wronged is in itself quite revolutionary, but as I said earlier, the film doesn’t age too well. The language of the film is steeped in the traditions of the popular movies of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Although Damini seems to be a talented dancer, she seems to have no ambitions of making a career out of it. In fact, she seems to have no career ambitions at all despite being quite intelligent, independent, and educated. When she marries Shekhar, she immediately becomes a housewife and everyone settles down in their traditional gender roles, Damini_MeenakshiSheshadrino questions asked. In one scene, Damini says to Urmi, “Pati ko apne hee haath se pakaake khilaane mein bahut sukh milta hai. (It is a great pleasure for a wife to cook for her husband.)” All of this seems jarringly dated in the age of films like Kahaani and Queen. Her daring act of pure agency is when she defies the family and goes to the police to reveal the truth about the rape. But even here it is revealed that the police and other interested parties are actually using her as a pawn in a larger game of deceit and intrigue. The very act that gave her some agency is completely undermined. Throughout the movie Damini is used, manipulated, harassed, humiliated, and imprisoned. Her other act of agency comes when she escapes from the mental asylum. She is chased through the streets by Rakesh and his friends until she runs into Govind (Sunny Deol), who saves her and becomes her protector. Damini running to Govind for protection, standing behind him, and peering nervously over his shoulder while he faces her assailants in all his manly glory is another recurring image in the film. It seems very obvious that Damini has been turned into a victim. From the moment Govind enters the film, he becomes the archetypical male protective force and the mover of the plot.

AdvocateGovind_Damini_SunnyDeolWho do the lawyers represent?

Govind is also a lawyer, but the film goes to quite some length to show that he isn’t really a “lawyer”. When Damini runs into him, he has quit the law, disgruntled and disillusioned by its failure to help him get justice for his dead wife. He constantly speaks of himself as an outsider to the profession and refers to the system as a tool in the hands of the rich and powerful. One can’t help but come to the conclusion that he is supposed to represent the voice of the frustrated masses dressed in a gown and band only so that it can find a place inside the courtroom.

This polarised positioning of the two lawyers seems to perpetuate a dangerous myth about the legal profession: that lawyers always agree or sympathise with whomever they represent, otherwise they would not take the case. This patently false assumption often leads to prosecutors being held as heroes and defence attorneys being considered villains by the layman.

As the literal (screaming) voice of conscience in the film, Govind is supposed to be representing us all in that courtroom. Through his wit, intelligence and guile, he is able to take on Chaddha’s most cunning moves and thwart them in court. Isn’t that the dream? Throw out the rules and regulations and we could all be Govind. If it weren’t for all those bothersome procedures we could all just put on a gown and band and give stirring speeches in the courtroom and defeat our enemies by the sheer force of our intellect. However, bring in all the rules and procedures, and lawyers like Chaddha win. American movies based on the law tend to emphasise a lot more on rules than Indian ones. Whether it is a light-hearted jaunt like My Cousin Vinny or a serious drama like A Few Good Men, procedure plays a critical role in the Hollywood depiction of a trial. The fact that cases can be won or lost on procedural technicalities has been drilled into the American audience’s mind, so much so that entire TV shows like How To Get Away With Murder, Law & Order, and The Practice can be largely based on how procedural intricacies can frustrate or help lawyers. For the American audience, the courtroom is a battlefield or a competitive arena where strict rules make for riveting games and clever strategies.

For the Indian audience, on the other hand, the courtroom is a theatre where the drama unfolds. In many Indian films based on legal trials one gets to see the spectacle of a person, not necessarily a lawyer, giving a long uninterrupted speech while animatedly walking around the entire room, followed by thunderous applause from the people sitting and watching the performance. Indeed, Govind’s “Tareekh par tareekh” speech in Damini gets a standing ovation in the courtroom. We like to see ourselves in the dramatis personae, hear our voices emanating from their mouths. The film trial, for us, is meta-theatre – we want to be surprised, delighted, enraged, shocked, moved; we want a satisfying denouement. We want to believe that within this courtroom anything can happen, and above all justice, or at least our conception of it, will be served. We expect from the trial everything that we expect from the film itself.

Damini starts off with a quote from none other than India’s most famous lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi:

“There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.”

This is a line that is repeated right at the very end of the film by the judge who is presiding over the trial as he congratulates Damini and commends her for her courage, integrity, and strength of will. But it also sets the tone of the film and perhaps frames our films’ attitude towards our judicial system. Isn’t it quite an awkward paradox? In the court of public opinion our actual courts of justice don’t stand a chance.

(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around myLaw.net looking for things to do.)

Written by myLaw

Courts fail in assessment of compensation

Most people who lived in Delhi during the late nineties would remember this horrific incident of mistaken identity. The Delhi police shot and killed two innocent men in the middle of the day in one of Delhi’s busiest areas. The incident took place on March 31, 1997, at Barakhamba Road, near Connaught Place (New Delhi’s central business district) at 2:30 pm. Thirteen policemen, led by the Assistant Commissioner of Police Satyavir Singh Rathi, surrounded and shot at a car with AK-47s and revolvers, without prior warning, on the suspicion that one of the persons in the car was a wanted criminal. There were three unfortunate people in the car. Two of them died on the spot, while the third suffered grievous injuries.

The investigation of the incident was handed to the CBI, who in its usual style took its own sweet time in prosecuting the case. Eventually, ten of the thirteen policemen, including Satyavir Singh Rath, were convicted under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and sentenced to life imprisonment by an order of the trial court dated October 24, 2007.

Mercifully, the appeal process was slightly more expedient than the Trial Court’s efforts. On September 18, 2009, the Delhi High Court upheld the conviction of the policemen and the officers, and on May 2, 2011 the Supreme Court dismissed the appeals of the convicted policemen (Satyavir Singh Rathi v. State through CBI, 2011 (5) SCALE 339). In doing so, the Supreme Court also observed that at no point of time did any of the policemen attempt to apprehend the suspected criminal, or attempt to verify whether one of the persons in the car was in fact the wanted criminal. The Supreme Court also observed that the shooting and firing was so indiscriminate that two of the policemen present at the incident were injured due to the friendly fire.

The Delhi High Court

The Delhi High Court

In addition to this prosecution conducted by the State, in 1997 the widows of the two deceased men filed writ petitions in the High Court of Delhi claiming Rupees two crore each from the Union of India and the Delhi Police for the wrongful killing of their husbands, (See, WP (C) Nos. 4756 and 5405 of 1997, titled Neema Goyal v. Union of India and Another). Due to the fact that the writ petitions were related to an on-going state prosecution, the writ petitions could not be disposed of until the guilt of the accused in the murder trial was confirmed. The prosecution attained finality only on May 2, 2011 when the Supreme Court upheld the decisions of the Delhi High Court and the Trial Court.

Justice S. Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court delivered a judgment disposing of the writ petitions of the widows on July 4, 2011, holding that “the liability of the State to compensate victims of lawlessness by its agents and employees is well settled. The Supreme Court has consistently rejected the defense of sovereign immunity as creating an exception when violations of fundamental rights are committed by the State. It is also well settled that in matters involving violation of fundamental rights by law enforcement officials, the strict liability principal will apply and the State must pay monetary compensation to the victims of such violence as a public law remedy under Articles 32 or 226.”

Furthermore, Justice Muralidhar also took strong note of the fact that even after the conviction of the police personnel in 2007, not one of them was dismissed from service; in fact they were only dismissed from service after the High Court confirmed the conviction of the accused police personnel. However, Satyavir Singh Rathi was not removed from service even at that stage, and not even after the Supreme Court had confirmed his conviction and dismissed his appeal on the May 2, 2011. The Court learnt that, in terms of Rule 11(1) of the Delhi Police (Punishment and Appeal) Rules, 1980, an official of the Delhi Police may continue to remain in service even after his conviction if the first appeal filed by him remains.

Justice S. Muralidhar Image above from the website of the Delhi High Court.

Justice S. Muralidhar
Image above from the website of the Delhi High Court.

The Court took strong exception to the fact that the ten police officers who committed cold-blooded murder, stayed on the rolls of the Delhi Police for a period of ten years after they committed the crime and for a further period of two to three years, after they were convicted by the Trial Court. The Court directed the Ministry of Home Affairs to institute an appropriate inquiry by a senior level officer, to inquire into the facts and circumstances under which dismissal of these men were delayed and further directed that the said Rule of the Delhi Police Rules be expediently amended.

Coming back to the issue of compensation, it is a settled position that compensation may be given in such circumstances, however it is on the issue of quantum of compensation that our legal system enters its hyper-technical and murky best. The judgment disposing of the writs cites the case of D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal, (1997) 1 SCC 41, wherein it was inter alia held that “in the assessment of compensation, the emphasis has to be on the compensatory and not on punitive element”.

Following the above mentioned principle and formulae for compensation laid down by the courts in the previous cases, wherein the age, income and number of dependants of the deceased are considered relevant factors, the High Court arrived at a grand sum of Rs. 15,00,000/- each as compensation to the widows of both the deceased men.

This is the point at which the law and the courts fail, and fail miserably. The deaths of the victims happened in 1997, final relief was given to the families in the form of a final conviction and compensation only in the year 2011. In 1997, one of the victims was earning Rs. 95,000/- per annum. No matter what formulae through legal theory you throw at anyone, it belies all common sense and logic that Rs. 15,00,000/- is sufficient compensation.

The legal position that punitive damages should not be awarded in such situations is preposterous. This is a fit case for punitive damages, and heavy ones at that. The police, without so much as verifying whom they were shooting in cold blood, opened fire on one of the busiest streets of the city in the middle of the day. Any number of people could have been injured, and yet, our legal system cannot award punitive damages against them. Punitive damages are by definition meant to deter similar actions by the person against whom such damages are awarded, in future. Would it not therefore be logical, to levy punitive damages against law enforcement agencies in such cases, to ensure that such agencies in the future will ensure that their employees and agents refrain from behaving in such a negligent and callous manner?

 

(Aditya Shamlal is a New Delhi-based advocate.)

 

Written by myLaw

A plea to the Saket Bar

 By Tennille Duffy

 

For several days, protestors gathered in parts of central Delhi. Photographs by Shilpi Boylla

For several days, protestors gathered in parts of central Delhi.
Photographs by Shilpi Boylla

Two days before charges were presented in the new fast-track District Court at Saket in New Delhi, the Saket District Bar Council announced that its advocates would refuse to represent the accused in the Delhi gang rape case. The accused will still receive representation by way of lawyers appointed by the government, but the representatives of the Saket Bar miss the point when they argue that their boycott will help ensure speedy justice in the case. The absence of a good and vigorous defence may contribute to a speedy trial, but in no way can it ensure justice. A good defence is one of the most vital ingredients in the criminal justice system and it is essential for ensuring that the justice that everyone in the nation is, rightly, screaming for, is done.

Doing justice is not just about locking people up after a show of a trial. Real justice is done when all parts of the system come together and work properly. This means that all the attendant checks, balances, and protections — including a proper defence — must come into play. It is the professional obligation of members of the Bar to uphold the system. Does the Saket Bar think that it only needs to operate some of the time? Is their faith in the very system they work within, so weak that they refuse to take part in it?

The truth is that India has, for better or worse, inherited an adversarial system of criminal justice from the British legal tradition. Two parties — the prosecution and the accused, represented by their lawyers — come together, in front of an impartial judge, and argue the case. In this system, lawyers defend people accused of both petty and heinous crimes every day. That is their job and it plays a vital part in ensuring the guilty are punished. Perhaps it’s not always a pleasant job, but it is an important one.

Indeed, the tradition of the Bar is to see it as a mark of the honour of the profession that advocates conduct themselves dispassionately and that everyone has access to representation, without fear or favour. One of the first lawyers to breathe life into this principle was John Cooke. Courageously, he agreed to conduct the prosecution of King Charles I in 1649 for crimes of high treason related to the English Civil Wars. A monarch had never been tried before a court of law before – this was a monumental moment in legal history, and in the history of the Bar. In the end, John Cooke paid for his principles with his life. He was charged with regicide under Charles II, and hanged, drawn, and quartered in 1660.

John Cooke paid with his life for prosecuting the King. Image above is originally from Wikipedia Commons.

John Cooke paid with his life for prosecuting the King.
Image above is originally from Wikipedia Commons.

The modern value of the defence lawyer’s job is reflected in rules of advocacy that exist around the world. In particular, there is an obligation upon an advocate — provided they have the time and expertise — to take any case. Taken from the long-standing English ‘cab rank’ rule, it is adhered to in jurisdictions from Canada to Australia, and reflected in Rule 1 of the “Rules on an Advocate’s Duty Toward the Court” in the Bar Council of India Rules. This Rule reads, in part, “An advocate is bound to accept any brief in the courts or tribunals or before any other authority in or before which he proposes to practise.”

The Indian legal system requires proof beyond reasonable doubt, and holds to the presumption that people are innocent until proven guilty. This is spoken of as the ‘golden thread’ that runs through the criminal justice systems of the common law world, thanks to the House of Lords judgment in Woolmington v. DPP, [1935] UKHL 1. The often-repeated maxim to justify these principles is that ‘it is better that one hundred guilty men go free than one innocent man go to gaol’.

Another way to think about this maxim is perhaps more appealing to the demands for justice being made in India right now. Suppose the police were to get it wrong, and the mistake was not picked up because an innocent accused did not receive a proper defence. The consequence is not just that an innocent man might go to gaol. Another terrifying consequence is that the truly guilty man would still be out there.

We know enough about the police in India to know that they sometimes get it wrong. Sometimes, they frame people and leave the real culprits free. Sometimes, even judges are subject to improper influences. A fiercely independent Bar that provides a vigorous defence to everyone helps ensure that the real culprits are brought to justice.

It also helps to ensure that the trial is conducted smoothly and that the chances for an appeal are limited. Indeed, a good defence lawyer will provide clients with realistic advice about the strength of the case against them. This improves the chances that a guilty accused will plead guilty. A good defence lawyer will abide by the rules of advocacy and evidence and not make a mockery of court proceedings, nor allow their client to. A good defence lawyer is not interested in ‘getting their client off’ at all costs, but in representing their client fairly and within the bounds of the law. This should not impede the guilty being found guilty and being appropriately punished.

As with most worthwhile things in life, there is no short cut in this case, or any other criminal trial. Justice must be reached through the proper process and if a good defence is provided, we can all be much more certain that the right man, the guilty man, is behind bars and not still living free, having escaped the consequences of his horrendous acts.

So I make this plea to the Saket Bar – please do not boycott these accused, or any accused. Instead, work to make sure that every accused before the courts has the best defence possible. Campaign for the improvement of legal aid in India. Recognise your professional responsibility to uphold and improve this system of justice as best you can. Not necessarily because these accused deserve it, but because in this and in every single case, the citizens of India deserve the best criminal justice system possible.

Written by myLaw