Courtroom dramas are a staple of Hollywood moviemaking, but not surprisingly, the true stories behind the films are usually not as glamorous as their big-screen adaptations. Here are some famous examples.
The Accused (1988)
The Movie Story: A single, working-class woman, Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster), goes to a sleazy bar one night, where she has too much to drink, does a provocative dance by a jukebox, and flirts with a man in the back room. The man and several other drunk bar patrons gang-rape her while onlookers cheer them on. Assistant district attorney Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) takes Tobias’ case and, under pressure from the defendants’ high-priced attorney and taking into account Tobias’ sketchy past and promiscuous actions, agrees to reduce the charges to aggravated assault, meaning the assailants could be released on parole in less than a year. Feeling guilty for her concession, Murphy decides to put three onlookers on trial for criminal solicitation and succeeds in convicting them.
The Real Story: Portugese-American Cheryl Ann Araujo, a 21-year-old married mother of two, was raped by six men — all Portuguese immigrants — in Big Dan’s bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts on the night of March 6, 1983. The trial brought to the national spotlight the concept of blaming a promiscuous victim in cases of rape, although testimony regarding what happened during the incident varied wildly. Although Araujo claimed that she had only one drink and talked only to a female patron, the defense claimed that she was a drunk and willing sexual participant seeking to make money by writing a book or by suing the bar’s owners. Four of the six men were convicted of aggravated rape and sentenced to between six and nine years in prison. Although Araujo claimed that there were onlookers laughing and cheering, none were ever prosecuted. She didn’t live to see the defendants’ eventual release from jail, as she died in a car accident in 1986 after moving to Miami.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
The Movie Story: When U.S. Army Lieutenant Frederic Manion (Ben Gazzara) is charged with the murder of a small-town Michigan bartender who reportedly raped his flirtatious wife, Laura (Lee Remick), local lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) convinces the jury to acquit the soldier by reason of temporary insanity.
The Real Story: The novel that would later became the movie Anatomy of a Murder was based on a 1952 murder trial in which lawyer-turned-author John Voelker defended a man, U.S. Army officer Lieutenant Coleman A. Peterson, charged with killing a bartender who allegedly raped the defendant’s wife. Mrs. Charlotte Peterson frequented the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay, Michigan and had a reputation for partying, dancing barefoot and generally “being available” when her husband was working. On the night in question, she claimed that when bartender Mike Chenoweth tried to seduce her, she resisted, and he raped and kicked her, leaving visible bruises. Upon hearing the story, Lieutenant Peterson grabbed a gun and went to the bar, where he shot Chenoweth once, then leaned over the bar and emptied the gun into his body, shooting him seven times in all. Although the jury was initially in favor of convicting Peterson of murder, it eventually overcame doubts about Mrs. Peterson’s reputation and the possibility that her husband caused her bruising, and returned a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. Within a month of the trial, Lieutenant Peterson was deemed to have regained his sanity and was released from the state asylum. He and his wife divorced just a few months later.
A Cry in the Dark (1988)
The Movie Story: During a camping trip in the Australian Outback, the 10-week-old daughter of minister Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) and his wife Lindy (Meryl Streep) goes missing. Lindy swears that she saw a dingo scurry off with something in its mouth, but public opinion turns against her because of her stoic demeanor and because of the family’s mysterious Seventh-day Adventist faith. Based largely on circumstantial evidence, she is found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, while Michael is found to be an accessory and is given an 18-month suspended sentence. After Lindy spends three and a half years in jail, police find baby Azaria’s jacket near dingo lairs, corroborating the mother’s story. She’s released from prison, and all convictions against the Chamberlains are overturned.
The Real Story: On the night of August 17, 1980, 10-week-old Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from her family’s campsite near the Ayers Rock (Uluru) monolith in the Australian Outback. Mother Lindy claimed that she saw a dingo leaving the family’s tent, where Azaria was sleeping. A week later, the baby’s blood-spattered clothing was found nearby. Doubts about the story soon arose in the minds of the investigators, due to a number of factors: the feasibility of a dingo dragging away a 10-pound baby, the stoic demeanor of the parents (due to their belief that whatever happens in life is God’s will) and the family’s religious background. These doubts, combined with highly dubious forensic evidence, led to the 1982 trial and conviction of the Chamberlain parents — Lindy for murder and Michael for being an accessory after the fact. After the conviction, evidence in the Chamberlains’ favor — the revelation that “fetal blood” found in their car was in fact paint and in particular, the 1986 discovery of Azaria’s missing jacket near dingo lairs — led to Lindy’s release. The Chamberlains were officially exonerated in 1988. They divorced in 1991, and both have since remarried. In 1992, Lindy received $1.3 million from the Northern Territory government for wrongful imprisonment.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
The Movie Story: Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts), a Southern California single mother of three, gets a job as a file clerk in a small law firm and discovers inconsistencies in the files of a pro bono case that lead her to independently investigate further. She travels to the small town of Hinkley, California and finds evidence that the water in the area has been tainted by a chemical used to prevent rust in a facility owned by Pacific Gas & Electric. As a result, hundreds of locals have come down with maladies ranging from chronic nose bleeds to cancer. Brockovich convinces her boss, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), to file a lawsuit against PG&E, and after a larger law firm is brought in to help on the case, the Hinkley residents win a $333 million settlement.
The Real Story: Since 1952, Hinkley, California had been the site of a Pacific Gas & Electric compressor station that used cooling towers with water containing hexavalent chromium to prevent the machinery from rusting. The chromium in the water contaminated the town’s groundwater, leading to a variety of illnesses in hundreds of citizens. In 1992, town resident Roberta Walker (in the film, renamed Donna Jensen and played by Marg Helgenberger) became suspicious of PG&E’s intentions when she was offered $250,000 by the company for her $25,000 home (in an attempt to quietly clean up their mess), and she contacted Ed Masry’s law firm. Ed Masry drove out to talk with Walker, and eventually brought Brockovich, who helped gather testimony and evidence for the case, which eventually grew to include 650 plaintiffs. The case never went to trial, because PG&E and the plaintiffs’ lawyers — Masry and two high-profile Los Angeles attorneys — convinced them to settle the case in arbitration before a panel of hired judges (some of whom the plaintiffs’ lawyers later took on a luxury cruise, raising questions of impropriety). PG&E settled the case for $333 million, with $133 million going to the lawyers and $2 million to Brockovich. On average, the victims received around $300,000 each. Walker didn’t get the $5 million portrayed in the film, stating later about the movie, “It’s a big fabrication.” There was widespread dissatisfaction amongst the plaintiffs with the uneven distribution of proceeds, which seemed to be arbitrary, one resident commenting that “If you were buddies with Ed and Erin, you got a lot of money. Otherwise, forget it.” In real life, Brockovich’s movie love interest, “George,” was arrested for trying to extort money from her following the release of the movie.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
The Movie Story: A priest, Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), is put on trial for the death of a young woman named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), upon whom he had performed an exorcism. Through flashbacks, we see the tribulations that she suffered while possessed and the supernatural occurrences that accompanied the exorcism. Moore is ultimately found guilty, but receives a sentence of “time served,” allowing him to walk free.
The Real Story: The film was inspired by Anneliese Michel, a 16-year-old German girl who, in 1968, began displaying symptoms of demonic possession. She was diagnosed with both epilepsy and depression and for years suffered paralysis, self-abuse, voluntary starvation and demonic visions until 1976, when two priests performed 67 exorcisms over the course of 10 months. During that time, Anneliese barely ate, believing that her starvation would atone for others’ sins, and she died in July 1976 at the age of 23, weighing only 68 pounds. Her parents and the priests were tried and found guilty of negligent manslaughter and were sentenced to six months in jail, suspended with three years’ probation. The 2006 German film Requiem is a more realistic portrayal of Michel’s experience, playing as a drama that focuses more on the possibility of mental illness than demonic possession.
Inherit the Wind (1960)
The Movie Story: In the small town of Hillsboro, Tennessee, high school biology teacher Bertram T. Cates (Dick York) is arrested while teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution, in violation of state law. Former presidential candidate and avowed creationist Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) comes to town to prosecute, while famed lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) volunteers to defend Cates. After several days of testimony and heated debate between Brady and Drummond, Cates is found guilty and fined a token fee of $100. Outraged, Brady suffers a heart attack, dying a few hours later. Drummond rejects the fee and calls for an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The Real Story: The so-called “Monkey Trial” took place in 1925 in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. The defendant was John T. Scopes, a football coach who’d served as a substitute teacher in a science class in which he covered a chapter on evolution from the assigned textbook. Unlike in the movie, Scopes’ arrest was voluntary and arranged. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had made it known that, in response to Tennessee’s recent passage of the Butler Act — which forbade the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools — it would defend anyone willing to challenge the act. In part because of the principle and in part because of the attention it would bring the town, Scopes agreed to be the guinea pig, even requesting that his students testify that he did in fact teach the theory of evolution. The trial pitted famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, arguing for the defense, against former Secretary of State and three-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, who served the prosecution. In the end, Scopes was found guilty and was ordered to pay a small $100 fine. Bryan died in his sleep five days after the trial ended. In 1927, Darrow and the ACLU appealed the case before the Tennessee Supreme Court, which struck down the Dayton court decision on a minor technicality. However, it wasn’t until 1967 that the Butler Act was repealed, and the following year, the US Supreme Court ruled that such statutes were unconstitutional.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
The Movie Story: After the end of World War II, during the Nuremberg Trials, Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) oversees the trials of four German judges — most notably Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) — accused of genocide and crimes against humanity for sentencing innocent men to death in cooperation with the ruling Nazi party. The Nazis are defended by German attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), while prosecuting the accused is American Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark). The eight-month-long trial debates responsibility and morality, and in the end, although Haywood is pressured to show leniency in order to gain Germany’s support in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, he finds the four defendants guilty and sentences them to life in prison.
The Real Story: The Nuremberg Trials (1945-1949) were a series of trials of the German Nazi leadership that took place after the end of World War II in Nuremberg, Germany. The most high-profile of the trials occurred in the initial stage, running from 1945 to 1946 and targeting top Nazi officials for their participation in war crimes, but the events in Judgment at Nuremberg were based on the 1947 “Judges’ Trial,” in which 16 German judges, lawyers and officials tied to the Nazi Party were tried. The character of Ernst Janning was based on Franz Schlegelberger, the highest-ranking defendant in the Judges’ Trial. The hearings were presided over by a panel of three American judges — not one — and after nine months, 10 of the defendants were found guilty, four receiving life sentences. By the time the film was released in 1961, all of the defendants who’d been convicted had already been released from prison — including the four who received life in prison.
The Movie Story: Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a successful lawyer who believes that his recent firing from the firm where he worked was due to his affliction with AIDS and not due to his poor work, as the firm claims. He decides to sue the firm, and lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) takes his case, sympathizing with the discrimination that Beckett faces on a daily basis. During the trail, Miller proves that Beckett was a competent attorney who wasn’t trying to hide his illness and thus didn’t deserve to be fired. Beckett is awarded back pay and damages shortly before dying.
The Real Story: Philadelphia was inspired by the story of Geoffrey Bowers, a New York City lawyer who was involved in one of the first AIDS discrimination cases. Bowers was diagnosed with AIDS in April 1986. In May of that year, he received a satisfactory evaluation from the partners at his firm, Baker & McKenzie, but just two months later, he was fired due to what the firm claimed were performance issues. Bowers filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights, claiming that he’d been fired because of the AIDS-related skin lesions that had begun to appear on his body. The Division of Human Rights conducted hearings and after several years, finally awarded $500,000 in back pay and damages in 1993, but by that time, Bowers had been dead for six years, having passed away in 1987. His partner also died of AIDS in 1988. Baker & McKenzie appealed and negotiated a private settlement with Bowers’ family in 1995. Ironically, the Bowers family ended up suing the makers of Philadelphia, who had claimed that the film was a work of fiction drawn from a variety of sources but eventually settled with the family in 1996, acknowledging that the movie was “inspired in part” by Bowers’ life.