Script Idea for New Courtroom Drama

For this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’ve got a movie idea to pitch. Picture this. A racist white sheriff rules his county in the Jim Crow South with an iron fist. A teenage white girl falsely claims she was raped by a black man. An all-white jury convicts on the flimsiest of evidence. It is very likely the young woman was not assaulted at all.

You think it’s been done before in To Kill a Mockingbird? Well I’m going to spice it up for an audience of millennials. Though undeniably gripping, the courtroom drama in the Gregory Peck classic was, sadly, a fairly ordinary story. An all-white jury convicts a wrongfully accused African-American man of raping a young white woman in the segregated American South? No big surprise. The only parts that are at all hard to believe are that a small-town white lawyer would mount a serious defense of the case, and that the defendant would actually make it to trial without getting lynched.

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I’ve got a book recommendation for MLK Day

My movie will be wilder, crazier, more dangerous.  Instead of one accused black man, there will be three. One of the accused men will not even be in the same county when the “crime” occurred.  Instead of a no-name small town lawyer, the lead defense counsel will be a famous civil rights lawyer. Instead of one trial, there will be two, and in between the two trials the case will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Action and danger? Imagine this. In the opening scene, the civil rights lawyer runs from the courthouse and jumps in a car that speeds out of the county with angry Klansmen in hot pursuit. Sheriff’s deputies beat false confessions out of two suspects, but a third refuses to confess. In between the two trials, the racist sheriff picks up two of the accused from prison, pulls over to the side of a country road in the middle of the night, pulls a gun, and then . . . well I don’t want to spoil it.

I know, it sounds too sensational. But this story is real. You can read it in Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which won a Pulitzer Prize. If you care about the American civil rights movement, you will want to read this book. If you are a lawyer, you will enjoy learning how Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues handled the actual nuts and bolts of defending three wrongfully accused men under the most difficult conditions. If you are a trial lawyer, you absolutely must read this book.

You can read reviews of the book to find out more details about the story. Here are just a few of the broader points I took away from this riveting account of a chilling episode in American legal history.

Thurgood Marshall, Super Lawyer

I knew that Thurgood Marshall was a pioneering civil rights lawyer who won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and went on to serve as the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. But before this book I did not realize that Marshall was one of the best trial and appellate lawyers in the country. I pictured the young Thurgood Marshall as a political activist who happened to be a lawyer. But Devil in the Grove shows that Marshall was a lawyer’s lawyer, a top-notch practitioner who wrote meticulous briefs and loved to argue cases.

Marshall was also a shrewd strategist who carefully chose the cases the NAACP Legal Defense Fund took on. In the Groveland case, the goal was not only to save three innocent lives, but to set up a legal challenge to a system that denied due process based on race.

A System Built on Dishonesty

Aside from the obvious injustice of the state-sponsored discrimination that reigned in the South until the 1960s, the most striking feature of the system was its fundamental dishonesty. The basic legal problem for southern segregationists was the 14th Amendment. (Remember that one? We had to fight a civil war to get it.) It guaranteed due process and equal protection of the laws, and it was the supreme law of the land.

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The defense table in the second Groveland trial

So ultimately, the law was on Thurgood Marshall’s side. This meant that openly defending racial oppression was not a viable long-term strategy for defenders of the racist status quo. They had to pretend that African-Americans actually had civil rights. They had to maintain the fiction that black and white schools were “separate but equal.” Brown v. Board of Education’s rejection of the separate-but-equal doctrine was like a collective “come on, man!” from the Supreme Court. Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.

Appellate Courts Sometimes Have to Get Real

A related lesson is that appellate courts can’t always take legal arguments at face value. Defenders of the most unjust system can always come up with arguments that have a surface plausibility. For example, when Texas Attorney General Price Daniel and his assistant Joe Greenhill defended Dallas County’s history of all-white grand juries, they could argue with some plausibility that exclusion of blacks from the grand jury was not a denial of equal protection, but merely a result of the fact that the grand jury commissioners did not know any black people who were qualified to serve.

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Thurgood Marshall and colleagues on the steps of the Supreme Court

But this was effectively a lie. Everyone knew the system was designed–formally or informally–to exclude African-Americans. The Supreme Court implicitly recognized as much in Cassell v. Texas, 339 U.S. 282 (1950), when it reversed a murder conviction on the ground that blacks were excluded from the grand jury. One year later, in Sheperd v. Florida, 341 U.S. 50 (1951), the Supreme Court cited Cassell to reverse the convictions in the first Groveland trial. Justices Jackson and Frankfurter wrote a concurring opinion saying they would have reversed based on the failure to remedy prejudicial pretrial publicity of the defendants’ alleged confessions.

Formal Rights Don’t Guarantee Actual Justice

The story of the Groveland trial also teaches a related fundamental point about the law. Formal rights under the law mean nothing if judges and juries don’t sincerely enforce them. When a judge refuses to allow defense lawyers to call to the stand the physician who examined the alleged rape victim, the Equal Protection Clause has not done the defendant much good. When a jury convicts three African-American men based on community outrage and racism, not on solid evidence, the Due Process Clause hasn’t given the defendants much comfort. Favoritism and prejudice on an individual level can make a mockery of even the best-designed institutions.

But these points are way too abstract. At its core, Devil in the Grove is great story-telling.  And it really happened. Hollywood couldn’t make this stuff up.

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Zach Wolfe is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC has offices in Houston, Austin, and The Woodlands. These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients.

 

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