Many of the integral doctrines established by our Founding Fathers survive today, and perhaps one of the most imperative is the right to a fair trial—a trial in which the prosecution bears the burden of proof and the defendant deserves the presumption of innocence. However, misconstrued information and the prejudicial publicity distributed by today’s pervasive media may impair an equitable criminal trial. Juries do not always arrive at the correct conclusion, for reasons that disadvantage the defendant. Despite apparent benefits of informed press and public criticism of the administration of justice, the media’s coverage of distorted evidence influences a jury’s thoughts and can sabotage the accused person’s right to a fair trial. The film Reversal of Fortune not only appropriately conveys the importance of a fair trial in the American legal system, but also accurately portrays various hindrances that lead to the defendant’s presumed guilt and potential wrongful conviction in criminal courts.Factual Overview Reversal of Fortune tells the true story of British aristocrat Claus von Bulow, tried and convicted of two counts of attempting to murder his wife Sunny von Bulow by fatally injecting insulin and consequently inducing her into a permanent coma. Found guilty of the crime and having received a thirty-year sentence, Claus contacts Harvard law professor and attorney Alan Dershowitz to review the case. Although Dershowitz is initially convinced of Claus’ guilt, he eventually takes the case for two reasons: (1) Claus agrees to fund the defense of another capital murder case and (2) Dershowitz agitatedly discovers that two of Sunny’s older children, Alexander and Ala, had hired private detectives to gather evidence and conduct preliminary investigations.
When assembling his own law students as the defense counsel, Dershowitz fervently explains to them the implications of the wealthy getting away with such misdeeds and violating basic legal principles. The team proceeds to draft an appeal within roughly one month, during which Dershowitz and his students face obstacles in collecting affidavits, obtaining scientific evidence, and finding reliable witness testimonies. For example, a pivotal mystery revolves around the bedroom scene in which Claus sat beside an unconscious Sunny while the maid Maria urged him to call a doctor for hours. Throughout the process, Dershowitz asks Claus to recount personal memories of Sunny’s varied addictions prior to the onset of both comas, and he increasingly wrestles with the question of Claus’ guilt or innocence. A significant breakthrough occurs when Dershowitz finds legal precedent from the Rhode Island Supreme Court, dictating that cases based on circumstantial theory fall apart if there are any weak links in the theory. Since the prosecution’s entire argument is based on the theoretical connection between Claus’ insulin-crusted needle and the insulin found in Sunny’s blood, Dershowitz realizes that he only needs to prove the faultiness of the theory in court.
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Moreover, the students submit different needles to the lab and find that both amobarbital and valium substances without insulin present false positive readings; this proves unfortunate for the prosecution’s argument because the data plainly disproves the assumption that Sunny fell into the coma solely due to insulin overdose. In the end, a successful appeal yields a retrial, in which Dershowitz cites former rulings in order to introduce new evidence such as the misleading lab results and the personal investigators’ notes that were forcibly withheld from the defense in the first trial. The defense finally receives access to these notes, which lack any information specifically about insulin—the supposed murder weapon—and Claus von Bulow is ultimately acquitted on both accounts. Legal ThemeThe right to a fair trial is a fundamental American legal principle that applies to every person in both civil and criminal proceedings.
As provided by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed..
.and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense” (“Sixth Amendment”). Our system of government demands that we be vigilant to safeguard fairness when a citizen’s life or liberty is endangered, and it ideally ensures that decisions will be made on the basis of dependable evidence fairly presented in court. In attempts to confirm the reliability of presented evidence, courts design procedures to “exclude information that is untrustworthy, irrelevant or unfairly obtained” (Powell 534).
Additionally, the right to trial by jury gives a group of peers the power to decide verdicts, free of state controls and forms of bias; on the other hand, the judge holds authority to set aside jury verdicts that oppose the law (535). In the spirit of assuring justice, our legal system provides the losing party the right to appeal verdicts on the state and federal level; civil cases permit either party to appeal while criminal cases permit only the defendant to appeal. Ninety-four district courts are categorized into twelve regions, each of which has its own Court of Appeals to review cases decided within the circuit. As the United States Supreme Court only hears approximately a hundred appeals per year, the Federal Circuit Court as well as the twelve Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country usually have the final say in thousands of cases. It is crucial to note that an appeal is not a retrial; unlike a district court trial, witnesses do not testify and a jury does not decide the verdict. Rather, appellate courts are based on the idea of incorrect application of the law, or errors in trial procedure, or violation of the U.S.
Constitution. On the other hand, not every mistake is cause for reversal—some mistakes are minor enough to not have hindered the right to a fair trial. For instance, while improper legal instructions probably do not hold considerable weight on the jury’s finding, admitting wrong evidence is an issue serious enough to be deemed inimical and thus reversible. Before attorneys on both the petitioner and respondent’s behalf present their respective appeals in court, each party must file a brief—a written document spelling out the arguments for the judges. (“About the U.
S. Court of Appeals”). The fact that the appellate court process exists accentuates the commitment to a fair trial, but seemingly countless components still factor into prejudicing the accused, which can culminate in wrongful convictions. Research efforts have shed light on what are believed to be key causes: untrustworthy testimony, false confessions, eyewitness misidentifications, erroneous biological data, inappropriate prosecutorial practices, and inadequate defense representation (Kahn 128). Although it is difficult to determine whether or not juries actually wrongfully convict more than they wrongfully acquit, we can look to recent records of the incredibly high numbers of innocent people who have been wrongfully convicted. For example, one of the major studies of DNA exonerations—acts declaring a defendant not guilty of a crime—in the United States has identified 340 total exonerations during a fourteen-year period. Awareness and prevention of defendants’ wrongful convictions has followed the advancement of DNA testing technology. In fact, in the same study, 144 people were exonerated through DNA proof and forensic examination (Gross 524).
Yet the “check-and-balance of science” cannot be afforded to everyone, and the lack of such transparent documentation absolutely detracts from the fairness of a trial (Kahn 126). This type of information—conventional examples include overzealous statements about incriminatory evidence, accounts of a defendant’s history, and purported confessions—naturally attracts widespread publicity, especially when people have a keen interest in the identity of the accused. Taking into consideration the reach of modern technology, as The New York Times plainly puts it, “no individual can receive a truly fair trial if before it is held the minds of the jury have been influenced or inflamed by one-sided, incomplete, prejudicial or inaccurate statements” (Powell 535). For example, in the case of President John F.
Kennedy’s assassination, the Warren Commission conducted an extensive study and determined that, if Lee Harvey Oswald had been tried, the impact of Dallas police’s news would have proved to be detrimental to both sides. Although the nature of the Oswald case uniquely involves heightened circumstances and distinctive pressures, the same principles of pretrial publicity, of potentially broad dissemination of misinformation, are sadly a frequent occurrence (536). To the average American, there is little distinction between a trial and its depiction in the media because the beliefs created in the courtroom are further perpetuated by mass media and rhetorical convention (Hariman 133).Film’s Portrayal of Legal ThemeAt the heart, Reversal of Fortune tells the story of seeking a fair second trial for a wrongfully convicted, innocent man. Claus von Bulow’s case suggests the value of justice, represented by the judicial procedures of the courtroom.
Protagonist Alan Dershowitz, by assembling a team of student assistants and successfully submitting a brief, makes use of an adversarial court system that aims to provide a just mechanism for pursuing the truth and honorably resolving conflict. Even more so, the plot’s climax in a second trial for Claus accurately highlights the value of the American legal system’s appeals process. Another interesting point of consistency between the film and reality is the binding strength of legal precedent.
Earlier on, Dershowitz reminds his students that appeals simply cannot be won on the basis of a defendant’s innocence; they must be grounded on procedural mistakes or constitutional issues. Yet in order to introduce new evidence—something that the appellate court does not normally accept—Dershowitz cites one of the court’s former rulings and effectively persuades the judge to comply. In doing so, he is able to proceed with oral arguments, bait the prosecution into re-disputing the evidence, and successfully win the case.
By correctly illustrating nearly the entire appeals process throughout the narrative, the film exhibits the inherent merits of a legal structure that can release the formerly accused, and thereby appropriately underscores the significance of a fair criminal trial. Reversal of Fortune is a “presumed guilty” tale, as evidenced when the two main characters first meet to discuss the case. Dershowitz tells Claus, “Never let defendants explain…
puts most of them in an awkward position—lying.” Here, he refers to the trap of false confessions, whereby Claus could easily implicate himself simply by being questioned by a skillful lawyer. Dershowitz’s advice here emanates his level of legal experience, and this scene accurately portrays the truth that, unfortunately, people sometimes falsely admit to a crime that he/she did not commit. In the same meeting, Dershowitz also bluntly informs Claus of their best advantage: everybody hates Claus. Dershowitz also explains that there are two convictions to be reversed: (1) the legal decision and (2) the certainty of the American people that Claus is unequivocally guilty. He is obviously charged with criminalized behavior, but he is also charged with conduct that violates the common moral conscience, conduct against beloved heiress Sunny von Bulow (Hariman 138). Other similar comments throughout the film, provocative news headlines and even Claus’ observations of his newfound notoriety at restaurants all communicate that his case captivated unfavorable attention from the masses.
At the end, regardless of the appellate court’s finding Claus not guilty on all charges, it’s reasonable to believe that a majority of the public still see him as guilty of ethical wrongdoing. This is an essential facet of the film that truthfully demonstrates the negative impact of pretrial publicity on the jury and public’s perception alike. The film accurately depicts untrustworthy testimony as not only a key drawback to fair trial but also a plausible cause of wrongful conviction. Primarily, Sunny’s possessive German maid Maria testifies in the first trial that Claus sat and did nothing for hours while she urged him to call an ambulance and physically shook Sunny. Claus later reveals to Dershowitz that he always stayed by Sunny’s side and only strayed from calling professional medical help because she particularly despised doctors.
Maria also describes discovering a black bag full of syringes and hypodermic needles in the bedroom and claims that it belongs to Claus. However, Dershowitz reasons that Maria would have had to assume the black bag belonged to Sunny if she explicitly mused, “My lady is not diabetic.” Although Maria admits that she was already aware of Sunny’s abusive intake of someone else’s prescribed drugs, she virtually turns her testimony around to target Claus.
Secondly, in the first trial, Sunny’s stepchildren Alex and Ala broach considerably extreme claims of attempted murder, which are then fueled by Claus’ disdainful former mistress Alexandra Isles. These fragmentary and biased statements, especially in the context of an intensely publicized case, would reasonably sway the minds of the jury and work against Claus’ image. The problem is that witnesses represent credibility to the jury, and untrue testimony is a real-world complication that considerably obstructs the execution of a fair trial; the film does well to showcase that. Most importantly, the film correctly emphasizes how the submission of flawed evidence can considerably distort the implementation of a fair trial. Claus is accused of having injected Sunny with a shot of insulin, and this appears to be supported by the insulin-crusted needle found in the black bag. However, Dershowitz’s team posits two counter-arguments. The first is that, if Sunny had indeed been injected, her flesh would have wiped the needle clean of any remaining insulin; hence, no crusty substance would have remained.
The second is memory enhancement because they recognize that nobody actually saw the insulin until the lab reported insulin in Sunny’s blood. It is further found that private detective Robert Brillhoffer’s notes from witness interviews and the stepchildren’s investigation—originally withheld from defense counsel—have no mention of insulin at all. In the discovery process, Dershowitz curiously submits needles containing other substances to a lab, and the results indubitably point to a false reading of insulin.
This indicates the reality of occasional bad forensics, whether it’s mishandling fingerprints or poorly analyzing DNA samples. In sum, discrepancies between Maria’s version of events, hostile witness testimonies, and general evidence initially concealed then admitted, all serve to sway the jury’s conviction and confirm an unfair first trial. The film accurately expresses that, although everyone is entitled to a presumption of innocence, illogical information propelled by prejudiced publicity leads to a defendant’s presumed guilt.Film’s Purpose To the extent that the film does not uncover the definitive truth but rather accurately portrays obstacles to a fair trial, filmmaker Barbet Schroeder’s ultimate purpose might be to present a perspective of justice outside of moral certainty.
The goal of such a perspective is not necessarily to have the audience figure out whether or not Claus von Bulow committed his crime. Instead, the mistaken details of the case, which are eventually disproven to attain an acquittal, add further meaning to this “presumed guilty” tale. Perhaps Schroeder intends to paint an intriguingly harsher picture of justice, one that allows for lawyers to defend those who are immoral or unlikable yet innocent. This is even implied when, at some point in the film, Sunny von Bulow’s voice eerily narrates: “Is Claus the devil? If so, can the devil get justice? Is all this legal activity in Satan’s service?” Perhaps the filmmaker’s purpose is for the audience to grapple with the notion that an ethically detestable character such as Claus can be entirely innocent of the accused crime, especially after a chance at a just trial. Raising questions about the intersection of evil and justice, Reversal of Fortune is a complex drama in which Alan Dershowitz attempts to salvage a criminal case that nearly the entire country deems a lost cause. Cases like that of Claus von Bulow express the importance of fair trials and serve to reinforce the protection of judicial proceedings as honest, equitable, and in unison with the law (Hariman 134). As the story unravels, the film commendably captures the subtleties and nuances–frankly, the sloppiness–of circumstantial evidence that can adversely contribute to the defendant’s presumed guilt. To this degree, Reversal of Fortune is accurate in its portrayal that significant factors, as imposed by external players and augmented by the effects of pervasive and prejudicial publicity, will collectively deny one’s right to a fair criminal trial.