Runaway Jury -- a 2003 Legal Thriller Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Runaway Jury -- a 2003 legal thriller based on a John Grisham novel -- does not necessarily enhance the viewer's knowledge of the law, but it certainly offers an expansive view of one way of breaking the law. The film is concerned with the rise of the contemporary "jury consultant," most often used in large-scale consumer liability lawsuits such as the one depicted in the film. The legal case in Runaway Jury concerns the liability of gun manufacturers for deaths caused by their products: intriguingly Grisham's original novel dealt with similar liability cases regarding tobacco, common in the U.S.A. In the 1990s, but was altered for the screenplay. To a certain extent, this change indicates that Grisham's, and the film's, focus was never on the legal issue at stake in the actual trial. The real legal focus regards the thin line between "jury consultancy" and "jury tampering" that is demonstrated by the film's cynical professional jury consultant, played by Gene Hackman. As a result, the film -- which is at many points somewhat implausible -- only rates about a 5 for its display of knowledge of actual jurisprudence; but it rates a 10 as a jeremiad against the introduction of vast sums of money, and the methodology of advertising and behavioral manipulation, in order to secure a verdict favorable to large corporate interests. To a certain extent, it could be argued that the basic practice of jury consultancy as depicted in the film is, in itself, a form of jury tampering: on the philosophical level, jury selection is intended to weed out obvious instances of bias. Jury consultancy, as depicted in the film, instead focuses on, and plays up to, any detectable existing bias, as a way of tailoring courtroom arguments to appeal directly to jurors.

2. Runaway Jury was selected as a film to examine precisely because of its interest in the relatively new emergence of the jury consultant. The film centers around a liability lawsuit, in which a former employee at a stock brokerage returns to his previous place of employment with a handgun, and opens fire killing several people and then himself. Widow Celeste Wood, played by Joanna Going, retains attorney Wendell Rohr, played by Dustin Hoffmann, and files lawsuit against the handgun manufacturer for gross negligence. The defense attorney for the gun manufacturer, Durwood Cable (played by Bruce Davison) meanwhile retains the services of legendary "jury consultant" Rankin Fitch, played by Gene Hackman. It is worth noting that the plaintiffs retain their own jury consultant in this matter as well, played by Entourage star Jeremy Piven, but who is depicted as being nowhere near as skillful at manipulation as the Hackman character: to some degree, then, the movie depicts these jury consultants as being more like a form of legal expert that will be retained by both sides, the implication being that more money will purchase a more accurate form of jury manipulation. It is important to note, though, that from a legal standpoint Hackman's jury consultancy as depicted in the film would be outrageously illegal if it occurred in real life: his surveillance of the jurors during the trial would be as illegal as the later obviously criminal acts (such as breaking into the house of a juror to search for information) he commits during the course of the plot.

The actual plot of Runaway Jury is intended to focus the attention of the courtroom thriller where it is not normally directed -- on the jury themselves. As a result, the central character in the drama is a seemingly ordinary juror Nicholas Easter, played by John Cusack. At his first appearance he seeks to be excused from jury duty; Gene Hackman's consultant has already removed him from his own list of recommended jurors, but the judge ends up forcing Cusack's character to serve on the jury. But soon Cusack and his girlfriend, played by Rachel Weisz, approach the Hackman character and offer to manipulate the jury's decision in his favor: he asks for a demonstration that they can do this, and Cusack then proves that he can be as manipulative of his fellow jurors from within the jury-box as Hackman can be with his technological apparatus and psychological profiling. The remainder of the plot shows the legal case being heard in court while, at the same time, Cusack and Weisz are approaching both plaintiff and defendant and offering to sell the case to either side. But Hackman's continued research into Cusack and Weisz reveals that they are not who they say they are: they have the ultimate sort of bias in this case, insofar as they both come from a town in Indiana that had been bankrupted by the loss of a lawsuit against a gun manufacturer, in which Hackman had also served as jury consultant. Cusack -- revealed to be a former law student -- is therefore a sort of vigilante attorney operating from within the jury box, and working to deliver what he sees as a just verdict. It is revealed that the money that Hackman gave them as a bribe -- useless now because Cusack contrives for the jury to decide in favor of the widow, with a judgment of 110 million dollars -- was always intended to be placed in trust for the victims of gun violence in the Indiana town. Cusack and Weisz then essentially blackmail Hackman into retiring from jury consultancy, threatening to expose his activities to the law.

3. The actual legal issue explored in the film is the ethics of jury consultancy overall: it is summed up when Hackman as Rankin Fitch says to his employers "Gentlemen, trials are too important to be left up to juries." Hackman's expensive and technological means of accomplishing this does obviously cross the line into illegal activity, which is why to some extent the moral critique of jury consultancy offered by the film does not correspond to the film's actual depiction of those practices, where Hackman is in obvious violation of the law with most of what he does. Hackman's claim that "everybody has a secret they don't want you to find" -- used to justify the large scale investigative research into Cusack's background which he eventuall bankrolls -- is in some way extended into illegal practice from the normal methods of jury consultancy, in which the "secret" is guessed rather than obtained through illegal search and seizure. In other words, Hackman's ordinary practice is to read people from their basic identifiable affiliations, so that at one particularly comic moment, he confesses that "I hate Baptists almost as much as I hate Democrats," indicating that individuals are seen by him in terms of a recognizable demographic, so that the appeal may be made in the same way as advertising. In some sense, Grisham (and the filmmakers) are intending to raise public consciousness about the nature of people like Hackman's character. His cynicism about the legal process is made palpable, and he even summarizes (accurately to a certain degree) the approach which states that it is the inferiority of jurors which necessitates Hackman's tactics: as he memorably notes during one of his better tirades in the screenplay, "You think your average juror is King Solomon? No, he's a roofer with a mortgage. He wanst to go home and sit in his Barcalounger and let the cable TV wash over him….and this man doesn't give a single solitary droplet of shit about Truth, Justice, or your American Way."

4. The Canadian legal code precludes several of the actions that occur in the lawsuit depicted in the film. Canadian jury selection is normally accomplished quickly and certainly does not ordinarily take more than one day of proceedings, in contrast to the protracted process depicted in the film. For a start, the American system of including "alternate" jurors was not practiced in Canada until 2002, the year before the film's release. The Criminal Code of Canada declares outright that the "jury shall be kept under the charge of an officer of the court as the judge directs, and that officer shall prevent the jurors from communicating with anyone other than himself or another member of the jury without leave of the judge." But actual sequestration -- requested by Cusack during the trial when he discovers Hackman's henchman breaking into his home, and videotapes it -- does not occur in the Canadian system until the actual deliberations. Moreover, Canada maintains a ban on discussing those deliberations afterward, or profiting from one's jury service -- the exception being, of course, in the context of a criminal investigation into charges of jury tampering or similar misconduct.

5. The differences between the Canadian and American legal systems in handling a case like this are apparent if we examine recent case law -- the 2001 Ontario case R. v. Gayle demonstrates a recent example of a Canadian judicial decision dealing with issues of jury selection and tampering. In R. v. Gayle, the issue was specifically racial bias in jury selection,…

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