Legal trials: the plot dictates “the story”

During the trial of Elizabeth Holmes for criminal fraud committed while he was CEO of Theranos, every piece of evidence and argument presented served to move the trial forward. Much like a simple Hollywood movie, the trial was “plot driven”, creating a compressed, linear narrative in order to advance each party’s case and story.

According to former trial attorney and current law professor, Philip N. Meyer”[i]In simplified Hollywood parlance, movies are “plot-driven,” while novels are “character-driven” or “character-driven.”

“To construct the plots of trial stories, litigants portray compelling characters and do so under constraints similar to those of Hollywood commercial films,” Meyer writes. Skilled attorneys can try to convince the jury that the defendant, or even a witness, is innocent or guilty (or at least telling the truth) based on their character.

“There is a well-recognized psychological bias among jurors to view events as being caused by the innate character traits and psychological propensities of individual actors rather than by circumstances beyond human control,” Meyer explains.

Appellate cases risk being judged by character, like novels, Meyers says. Appeals courts do not listen to testimony or admit new evidence, but rather consider what has already been presented in the previous trial.

If judges approach and view a case from a “new” perspective, they can focus on the character of the people involved rather than the actions. Meyers gives an example of Rusk vs. Statea 1979 appeal case that led to the overturning of Salvatore Rusk’s rape conviction.

The rape survivor was described as a young divorced woman with a young son who was hopping bars. Through this description of the survivor, the court of appeals made assumptions about the character of the survivor.

“The court’s reading of the record ignores the victim’s explanation of why she did not physically resist the defendant,” Meyer said. According to LexisNexis, “the court found that the prosecution failed to demonstrate that the defendant’s words or actions created a reasonable fear in the mind of the victim that if she resisted, he would have harmed her. or would have used force to overcome resistance”.

It was not, however, a work of fiction, a film or a novel. It was a trial for a crime, and “[the appeals court] read the transcript as if it were a novel and were free as readers to imagine the unseen world within. Only after the overturning of the guilty verdict was appealed would Rusk’s sentence be reinstated.


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By: Philip N. Meyer

ABA Journal, Vol. 101, n° 8 (AUGUST 2015), p. 26-27 (2 pages)

American Bar Association

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