Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey
I was mulling over what movie to use for this month’s review when I heard the startling news about Justice Scalia’s death. Like him or loathe him, Justice Scalia was one of a kind. In addition to being a frequent topic in the blogosphere, he was also the subject of art: an opera (Scalia/Ginsburg) and a play (The Originalist). Those thoughts eventually brought me to the movie for this month’s review: The Magnificent Yankee (MGM, 1950), a sentimental biography of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and the only movie I can think of where a real-life justice of the Supreme Court is the subject.
The Magnificent Yankee stars Louis Calhern as Holmes. This movie was Calhern’s only top-billed starring role, although he was a terrific supporting character actor in some excellent films, perhaps most memorably as a crooked lawyer in one of the greatest of films noir, The Asphalt Jungle. Calhern had played Holmes in the Broadway play of The Magnificent Yankee and rumor has it that MGM bought the property for Calhern to star in as a reward for his years as a stellar supporting actor. It was worth it: Calhern was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Holmes. The movie also stars Ann Harding as Holmes’ wife Fanny, and Eduard Franz as Justice Louis Brandeis.
While the movie devotes some time to Holmes’ career on the Court, the cases he decided, his judicial philosophy, and especially his crusty persona, the sentimental subtext of the movie is about how Holmes related to and treated his law clerks. Holmes and his wife had no children, and the movie advances the thought that the law clerks filled that void. Indeed, when this movie was released in England, it was re-titled The Man with 100 Sons.
The real Justice Holmes was one of the towering figures in American Jurisprudence and in the history of the Supreme Court. He was the son of prominent Boston gentry, a graduate of Harvard, a thrice-wounded veteran if the Civil War, a former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and one of the truly original thinkers and writers in American Constitutional Law. Holmes was the great proponent of the doctrine of Legal Realism, best expressed in his famous statement: “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Holmes served on the Court for thirty years and retired at age 90, the oldest Justice ever to serve.
Any lawyer worth his or her license should understand Holes and recognize the part he plays in the history of the law in this country. And one can do much worse than to watch – and enjoy – The Magnificent Yankee when it shows up on TV, usually on Turner Classic Movies. Please find it and have fun watching it!
 That Civil War service was so significant to Justice Holmes that he listed it above all other accomplishments on his tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery. The actual tombstone appears in the movie, when Justice Holmes visits his wife’s grave.
Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey
Movies like to blend fantasy with fiction. “Based on a true story” or “based on real events” are phrases used to give a film legitimacy or authenticity. The trouble is figuring out exactly where the facts end and the fiction starts. For example, Young Mr. Lincoln features a real person and contains kernels of truth (Lincoln’s stepmother encouraged him to read, he was a lawyer in Springfield, he was known for quirky humor, etc.) but embellishes other events or makes them up entirely. Judgment at Nuremberg is another example: there were, in fact, war crimes trials held after World War II in that German city, but the movie itself is pure fiction. This month’s movie, Murder in the First, offers another example of this kind of melding. It tells us it’s “inspired by a true story,” but, it turns out, not so much.
Starring Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater, the movie was released in 1995. It tells the story of Henri Young (Bacon), a 17-year-old orphan who steals five dollars from a store during the Depression to feed himself and his sister. Unfortunately for Young, the store also had a post office in it and he’s prosecuted in the federal system, ending up at Leavenworth. He’s later transferred to Alcatraz—“The Rock”—where he and two other prisoners try to escape. The escape fails due to another prisoner’s betrayal. Alcatraz’s sadistic warden (Gary Oldman) tortures Young and throws him into solitary for three years. Not surprisingly, Young loses his marbles. After being put back into the general prison population, he attacks his betrayer with a spoon in the cafeteria (where else?) and kills him. Put on trial for murder, Young’s lawyer, an inexperienced P.D. played by Slater, decides to defend Young by putting the prison system, Alcatraz, and the warden on trial, asking the jury to find that Young’s treatment turned him into a killer. The trial turns into a political circus, replete with shouting, surprise testimony, an overbearing judge who tweaks the evidence to help the prosecution, etc. Eventually, the jury finds Young guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but also returns a “verdict” against the warden and suggests an investigation of Alcatraz. Before Young can be transferred to another prison, he’s (mysteriously) found dead in his cell. A voiceover at the end tells us the warden was convicted of prisoner abuse and that Young’s conviction caused Alcatraz’s underground cells to be closed.
But how much of this is true? Well some of it, but not much. There really was a Henri Young, but he wasn’t the innocent played by Bacon. He was, in fact an experienced criminal, who’d been convicted of bank robbery (not a five-dollar theft) and had committed a murder in 1933. He’d previously spent time in state prisons for burglary and robbery and also in other federal facilities before being transferred to Alcatraz because he was an incorrigible prisoner. Young did kill another prisoner at Alcatraz, but in their book Reel Justice, Paul Bergman and Michael Asimow suggest it was “likely the result of a lover’s quarrel.” The murder took place in the prison laundry and Young used a knife. How long Young was actually in solitary can’t be confirmed, since no records currently exist, although contemporary newspaper accounts do reference the three-year claim. Young never served time in Alcatraz’s underground cells, since they were closed before he got there. It’s unlikely Young really was represented by a “Public Defender,” since that system didn’t become common at the state level until after Gideon v. Wainwright. Perhaps most interestingly, Young didn’t die in Alcatraz. He was transferred to the federal medical facility in Springfield, Missouri in 1954 and, after finishing his federal sentence, was then transferred to a state penitentiary in Washington to serve a life sentence for that 1933 murder. He was released on parole in 1972—and promptly disappeared, never to be seen again. If he’s still with us, he’d be ninety-six years old.
As you can see, this movie’s claim to be “inspired by a true story” is a serious stretch. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to watch and certainly brings to mind the current concerns about the effects of long-term solitary confinement on prisoners, an issue of particular significance in my home state of Colorado after the murder of Department of Corrections head Tom Clements by a paroled prisoner who spent substantial time in solitary. (Clements’ successor, Rick Raemisch, had himself placed in “ad seg” for twenty hours. If you haven’t read his story, you absolutely should. It can be found in The New York Times for February 20, 2014.)
As trial lawyers, we like believe that trials are the best way to bring the truth out of conflicting stories. Helping fact finders discern the truth is perhaps our most important goal as advocates. Every one of us has seen examples of truth that’s stranger than fiction. But sometimes the real problem is telling the difference between the two—and Murder in the First is a perfect example.
Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey
Have you ever tried to unkink a hose that’s been lying around in the yard all winter? Or tried to get through a big plate of spaghetti when the noodles are all twisted together? Or sorted through a huge box of family photographs that have been sitting in a basement shelf for years? Those are the kinds of images that went through my head when, after a conversation with a co-worker, I renewed my acquaintance with 1990’s Presumed Innocent. I didn’t remember how convoluted and complicated the plot was—and how much fun it was to try tounravel it.
Harrison Ford stars as Rusty Sabich, a prosecuting attorney. He is tasked with leading an investigation into the rape and murder of another prosecutor, Carolyn Polhemus, played by Greta Scacchi. Rusty has one problem, though: the married Rusty had had an affair with Carolyn, who’d dumped him after she decided that he couldn’t help her move ahead in her career. Rusty manipulates the investigation, hoping to keep his role quiet. But then another problem arises: Rusty’s boss (Brian Dennehey) loses an election and the new DA, aided by a cop who’s not Rusty’s friend, finds evidence that points to Rusty as the killer. Knowing he’s in a jam, Rusty hires Sandy Stern (Raul Julia), a leading criminal defense lawyer, to help him. Eventually, the case goes to trial, with an upright judge, some missing evidence, a twist in the forensic evidence, a little perjury, etc. After all of that, the murderer is revealed—but that’s just another kink in the hose.
Even with all of the switchbacks, plot twists, and “wait a minute” moments, this movie is a real treat. It will keep you guessing right until the very end—and the end may not be something that you like very much. The acting is first class, and Alan Pakula’s direction is top notch. In 2008, Presumed Innocent was picked as number 11 on the ABA’s list of the 25 Greatest Legal Movies, and that’s high praise indeed.
Scott Turow was a creative writing fellow at Stanford when he decided to go to law school. After graduating from Harvard, he joined the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago, prosecuting cases involving government corruption. He then returned to writing. In 1987, his book Presumed Innocent came out, and after that Turow continued to publish exciting, believable thrillers with legal settings. (Two others were turned into movies.) He continues to practice law, doing mostly pro bono work.
This is one that I’d sort of forgotten, but one I was glad to discover again.