Once there was a fictional defense lawyer named Perry Mason who triumphed in each of his cases by springing new evidence on a witness or by catching him in a lie. The witness became so rattled, or perhaps so convinced that the jig was up, that he blurted out his confession then and there on the witness stand. On some occasions, the culprit wasn’t even on the stand but merely a spectator in the gallery, but Mason’s adroit presentation of the surprise evidence nonetheless compelled him to leap to his feet to confess.
This trope became known as the Perry Mason Method. It can be found in countless episodes of the TV show, the radio show, the movies, and of course the novels of Perry Mason’s creator, Erle Stanley Gardner. The blurted courtroom confession is laughably unrealistic, and Gardner, himself a lawyer, surely knew that. He was obviously going for the big melodramatic flourish. But perhaps he was also paying tribute to the idea that the very purpose of a trial is to reveal the truth, so why not reveal it right there in the courtroom?
But query whether the truth is a necessary outcome of an adversary system in which the parties’ motivation is to win. Trial lawyers routinely coach their witnesses (we call it preparing testimony), stack the deck in their clients’ favor (also known as jury selection), outwit their opponents (whenever we can), and blatantly pander to the jurors’ passions and prejudices (in every opening statement and closing argument). Consider that the evidentiary rules are designed to actually keep the jury from learning certain facts—prior convictions, for example, or out-of-court statements, or evidence obtained without a warrant. Whatever the merits of the exclusionary rule, there’s no denying that it excludes the truth from the case.
The following four classic courtroom dramas show that far from revealing the truth a la the Perry Mason Method, a trial can actually subvert the truth.
Anatomy of a Murder, by Robert Traver
Traver was the pen name of Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, whose earlier career was spent as both a defense lawyer and county prosecutor. The novel was based on an actual murder case that Voelker defended in 1952. Because it was the first work to really delve into both trial preparation and courtroom drama, it was heralded as creating a new genre of fiction, what we later came to call the legal thriller.
In the story, Paul Biegler, a small-town lawyer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, takes on the defense of Lt. Manion, a young soldier accused of murdering a local tavern owner named Quill. Manion’s wife, Laura, a beautiful girl who likes to drink and flirt, told her husband that Quill raped her, and Manion then went out and shot Quill. Biegler constructs a defense of irresistible impulse, arguing that Manion suffered from temporary insanity triggered by his wife’s rape. Meanwhile, the prosecution’s theory of the case is that Manion’s wife was cheating on him with Quill, and that Manion killed Quill in a jealous rage.
The novel cleverly demonstrates how the evidence can be molded to fit either theory. For example, Laura had bruises after the night in question; Biegler contends they were the work of the rapist; the prosecution suggests that her husband beat her after he discovered her affair. The trial is presented as a storytelling contest: whichever side can twist the facts into the most appealing narrative will win. Biegler’s story prevails, and the jury finds for the defendant.
The ending is a cynical one. The next day Biegler goes to the Manions’ trailer park to try to collect his fee, only to discover that the couple has decamped, with Manion leaving a message for Biegler that he felt an “irresistible impulse to get the hell out of here.” In effect, he’s admitting that his whole defense was a con.
It’s obvious that the trial failed to arrive at the truth of what happened on the night in question. But Biegler is nonetheless content. Thanks to his high-profile victory, his practice is about to take off. He’ll represent “bastards and angels alike, between whom, always remember, our Lady Justice has never distinguished.”
Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow
If Anatomy of a Murder created a whole new genre of fiction, then Presumed Innocent deserves credit for elevating that genre to a literary level. A dazzling blend of whodunit with whoishe, it’s not only a murder mystery but a deep dive into the psyche of the narrator Rusty Sabich. Like Justice Voelker, Turow was both a prosecutor and a defense attorney, and he brings acute authenticity to both the gritty politics of the story and all the legal chicanery on display.
Rusty Sabich is a husband, a father, and chief deputy prosecutor in Kindle County (Turow’s fictional stand-in for Chicago). He’s assigned to investigate the murder of lawyer Carolyn Polhemus, a victim of what appears to be a sexual bondage game turned ugly. Carolyn was not only Rusty’s colleague, she was briefly his lover, a conflict of interest he does not disclose. As he digs into the case, all the evidence seems startlingly to point back to Rusty himself. He’s been set up.
He’s indicted and goes on trial, prosecuted by his political enemies and defended by the brilliant Sandy Stern, a veteran lawyer who blows storm clouds of smoke to suggest that Rusty has been framed by the prosecution. The strategy succeeds, and the case is dismissed.
The murder of Carolyn Polhemus remains unsolved—publicly, at least. At home, Rusty discovers the murder weapon in the basement and learns that his own wife, deranged with jealousy over Rusty’s affair, killed Carolyn and framed Rusty for it. And in perhaps the most shocking twist of all, he decides not only to conceal her crime but also to stay in their marriage.
The trial at the heart of Presumed Innocent serves justice insofar as it exonerates Rusty. But it fails spectacularly at divining the actual truth of what occurred.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Lee was not a lawyer, but her father was, and he served as the model for Atticus Finch, one of the most admired characters in American literature (at least until he was recently revisited in Go Set a Watchman, the regrettable follow-up to Mockingbird).
Lee’s much-loved first novel is a coming-of-age story, an expose of racial injustice, and a stirring courtroom drama. Atticus is appointed to represent Tom Robinson, a black man who stands accused of beating and raping Mayella Ewell, a poor white girl saddled with the care of her younger siblings and her no-good drunk of a father.
At trial, Atticus succeeds in showing that Mayella and her father are lying, and that Tom with his withered arm was physically incapable of causing Mayella’s injuries. The facts become abundantly clear: what really happened was that poor lonely Mayella tried to kiss Tom, and her father caught her and beat her, then leveled the false charges against Tom.
But even though the trial succeeds in establishing the facts, justice is not done: the jury convicts Tom anyway. Atticus hopes to get the verdict overturned on appeal, but in the final cruel injustice, Tom is shot and killed in prison.
Here the truth was subverted by the jury, the townspeople, and all their collective small-minded bigotry.
Witness for the Prosecution, by Agatha Christie
Dame Christie wasn’t a lawyer, but as the author of scores of murder mysteries, she was probably more familiar with the intricacies of crime than any barrister could hope to be. The bestselling novelist of all time, she also wrote several collections of short stories, one of which included Witness for the Prosecution.
In this story, Leonard Vole is arrested for the murder of Emily French, a wealthy older woman who has made him her heir. Leonard’s wife, Romaine, appears to give testimony, not on behalf of Leonard as expected, but as a witness for the prosecution. Her seeming disloyalty is actually part of a nefarious scheme to free her husband. First she gives testimony that appears to nail Leonard’s coffin, but then she comes up with new evidence that’s easily discredited and thus throws her earlier testimony against Leonard into doubt. He goes free, and the story ends with the shocker that he actually did kill Emily French.
Curiously, Dame Christie grew discontent with that ending, one of the few in which she allowed her culprit to escape punishment. When she later adapted Witness for the stage, she rewrote the ending so that Leonard, about to run off with his mistress and leave Romaine to face perjury charges on her own, is stabbed to death—by Romaine.
In both tellings, however, the trial was clearly sabotaged to conceal the truth.
These classic fictional trials show four distinct ways that a trial can subvert the truth. In Witness for the Prosecution, it’s a clever bit of perjury. In Presumed Innocent, it’s corruption and dirty dealing. In To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s bigotry. But it’s the device employed in Anatomy of a Murder that might be the most chilling. For there it’s simply our adversarial system at work that leads to a total subversion of the truth.