All lawyers groan knowingly and nod sagely at the TV while watching courtroom dramas because we know there will always going to be something ridiculous. No witness will spontaneously confess. No judge will look kindly on you if you come up with last-minute evidence.
However, we won’t be deterred from watching by something as minor as histrionics and absurdity. And, to be fair, television and movie courtroom escapades have often favorably shaped the ways other people think of our profession. Certainly your friends and neighbors think you lead a much more dramatic life than you actually do. So let’s give in to the guilty pleasure of figuring out what the best and worst cross-examination moments in television and movies are.
Let’s do this. We’ll do the best three first so that you feel fortified to deal with the worst three.
Witness For The Prosecution
Oh, like you didn’t know this one would be here. Billy Wilder’s 1957 crime drama is a complete classic. Here, Charles Loughton is the very essence of plummy as he repeatedly asks the painfully deaf Miss McKenzie about her distinct and obvious lack of a hearing aid, a lack that poses a bit of a problem as she claims to have overheard a key piece of information.
Loughton doesn’t as much berate the witness into her admission as surround her gently and firmly with rotund vowels until the truth spills forward. Also, you can’t go wrong with barrister wigs. They just give you automatic gravitas.
To Kill a Mockingbird
This was another inevitability. 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the film we hope people think about when they hear we’re lawyers. Are we good-hearted people, full of the force of our convictions? Are we smart? Do we have perfectly floppy hair and tortoise-shell eyeglasses? We can only hope. You probably know this scene — from the book or the movie or both — like the back of your hand.
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) makes perfectly clear to the room that there’s just no way that Tom Robinson could have forcibly raped Mayella Ewell, thanks to a damaged and useless hand. Sadly, you also know what happens next: the cross doesn’t make a bit of difference and the jury, suffused in their own racism, finds Tom guilty anyway.
Perhaps Atticus was just too gentle? At least one lawyer writing about the cross-examination scene says Finch should have thrown civility out the window in order to win, but we just can’t see such behavior from genteel Gregory Peck.
Inherit The Wind
Starring Spencer Tracy as a thinly-veiled Clarence Darrow and Fredric March as an even more thinly-veiled William Jennings Bryan, this movie about the Scopes Monkey Trial is the movie you had to watch every few years in middle school and high school. Tracy and March are great, but the real reason this makes the top three is that it is pure lawyer fantasy material, the legal daydream equivalent of climbing Everest, of racing along in a 1967 Mustang fastback, of dating Farrah Fawcett circa 1977. Who on earth wouldn’t want to get opposing counsel on the stand and have them help you hurt their case? Who wouldn’t want to be part of this legal exchange?
March/Bryan: I do not think about things that I do not think about.
Tracy/Darrow: Do you ever think about things that you do think about?
A quick warning: under no circumstances should you watch the any of the made-for-tv versions of this movie, nor should you ever watch 2011’s Alleged, which stars Fred Thompson (aka DA Arthur Branch from Law and Order) as Bryan and positions itself as a corrective to the Darwin-promoting views of Inherit the Wind. Though if you do watch it, maybe you can tell us if there are any particularly good (or bad!) cross examination moments.
Speaking of bad, it is time to move on to those. You’ve been warned.
It’s a bit unfair to put this in the “bad” category, given that it is funny-bad, not earnest-gone-wrong-bad, but the outset of it is painful indeed. Listening to Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods fumble through the beginning of the cross, where she reads from her notes and then haltingly explains to the judge what mens rea means, is the stuff of lawyer nightmares everywhere.
You’ll also cringe at the hot pink dress with sparkly belt. You’ll consider crawling under the table when Woods gets caught up in repeating the same question, more to herself than the witness, over and over again, with diminishing success. But then Woods hits her stride and turns to the jury to give a lengthy discourse on how perms work and TA-DA the witness confesses, which is totally something that really should happen to us all at least once in our lives.
If Gregory Peck was the lawyer we all wanted to be, anyone from the unfortunately long-running television show Ally McBeal was the lawyer we never wanted to be. Also, Calista Flockhart’s suits led to years of non-lawyers assuming women wore micro-skirts to court, a thing that is largely considered unwise in the real world.
But let’s not lay all the blame at Flockhart’s feet. Everybody on this show was terrible! There was so much terrible to go around! In this clip, we get Peter MacNicol’s eternally creepy attorney John Cage behaving poorly. Cage isn’t conducting the cross-examination, but he is the one that decides to thwart a line of questioning gone bad by … well, it isn’t exactly clear what he does. Slide out of his chair as if he is falling? Yelp for no reason? Both at the same time?
This show ran for five seasons, people. FIVE SEASONS. And don’t you dare forget that when they weren’t conducting bad cross-examinations, they had inexplicable musical guests like Barry White and Sting.
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk
Yes, this is actually a real thing that happened. Seven years after the Incredible Hulk television show folded, someone thought it would be a great idea to make a courtroom drama about David Banner being accused for murder and having to stand trial, but when he gets badgered by both his own and opposing counsel, he hulks out. Ladies and gentlemen, it is never a good idea to have a client that can turn into a terrifying monster and, should one find oneself with such a client, it is best not to provoke said client into hulking out.
Please note that it is possible, though not recommended, to watch this entire movie for free on the internet. The future really is all you dreamed of, isn’t it?