Reel justice: W.Va. legal community talks movies

Kent Carper

Brent Benjamin

Robin Jean Davis

Harvey Peyton

CHARLESTON – Courtroom drama often can be the stuff for juicy movie plots.

And Hollywood, of course, has turned to the legal community countless times for thrilling and thought-provoking storylines.

With the Academy Awards being handed out next week, it's a perfect time to ask some local attorneys about their all-time favorite films focusing on their profession.

Nitro attorney Harvey Peyton says his pick is "To Kill A Mockingbird."

Based on Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning book of 1960, the 1962 film stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a lawyer in a racially divided Alabama town in the 1930s. He agrees to defend a young black man who is accused of raping a white woman. Many of the townspeople try to get Finch to pull out of the trial, but he decides to go ahead.

Peyton likes it because it shows "a person can gain great esteem and self-respect by losing a case if you do the right thing," he said. "It was quite timely and topical at the time."

Peyton also mentioned he liked "The Verdict" with Paul Newman as a lawyer who sees the chance to salvage his career and self-respect by taking a medical malpractice case to trial rather than settling.

Others he mentioned are "Absence of Malice" and "Adam's Rib."

Kanawha Circuit Judge Charlie King says he's partial to "Anatomy of a Murder," a 1959 film starring Jimmy Stewart.

"It's a criminal trial, and the acting was just superb," King says. "In my mind, it's pretty daggone authentic in terms of the examination of witnesses. They spent a lot of time on the trial, but it wasn't boring … a trial from the jury selection to the end.

"The entire film is pretty much dedicated to the day-to-day workings of a trial."

King also mentioned "The Verdict" and "To Kill A Mockingbird."

Charleston attorney Kent Carper says no film about the law compares to the original "12 Angry Men."

The 1957 film focuses on a dissenting juror in a murder trial who slowly manages to convince the others that the case is not as obviously clear as it seemed in court. The cast features Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman and Jack Warden, among others.

"A powerful cast," said Carper, who also is president of the Kanawha County Commission. "It shows the human dynamics of a jury, the ability of someone to persuade, how a jury works …

"It proves the reasons we have the jury system we have and how it works. It's the envy of the world."

State Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin is taken with "A Time To Kill," which was based on one of John Grisham's legal novels.

He especially likes the closing argument scene when Matthew McConaughey's character is defending a black man who killed the white men who had raped and murdered his 10-year-old daughter.

After an impassioned speech describing the crime in graphic detail, he closes the summation with one gripping line: "Now imagine she's white."

"That is one of the most profound things," Benjamin said of that speech and, in particular, that line.

"The thing about it is that it not only has great acting, but that closing argument," he said. "You watch an attorney put himself in the mind of a jury. And I don't remember any other movie doing it better."

Benjamin also says he enjoyed "Inherit The Wind," "A Man For All Seasons" and "Ghosts of Mississippi."

Charleston attorney Troy Giatras says he is partial to the films based on Grisham's books, such as "The Firm," "The Client" and "A Time To Kill."

"They did a good job of taking the books and making them into movies," he said. "They're just good drama."

Giatras also mentioned "Erin Brockovich" with Julia Roberts and "A Civil Action" with John Travolta and Robert Duvall.

Charleston attorney John Dascoli mentioned "… And Justice For All," a 1979 courtroom thriller starring Al Pacino as a Baltimore defense lawyer disgusted with rampant legal corruption who is asked to defend a judge he despises in a rape trial. If he doesn't do it, the judge will have him disbarred.

The movie probably is best remembered for Pacino's "You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order!" speech.

"That speech by Pacino always just stood out to me," said Dascoli, who works at The Segal Law Firm. "It's a classic performance of a criminal defense attorney."

Robin Jean Davis, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, mentioned a movie that touched on one of her legal areas of expertise.

"I love 'The War of the Roses,'" she said. "When I practiced law, one of my areas of specialty was domestic issues.

"Obviously, in that movie, everybody went off the deep end emotionally. From my experience in practicing law, it's a highly emotional time in one's life. What can be more emotional than dividing up assets, real estates, personal property and, of course, the cold hard money?

"But it added a lot of humor to a situation where, in many instances, there's nothing humorous about it."

Davis also mentioned "A Time To Kill," "My Cousin Vinny" and "To Kill A Mockingbird."

Benjamin concurred about "Vinny," which starred Joe Pesci.

"I watch it every time it comes on," he said with a chuckle. "It's just such a priceless movie."

More Stories