Cross-Examining Film

Thanks for having me here at Concurring Opinions. I haven’t blogged for some time – reminding myself there is life outside of the Web – but for the next month I am excited to reengage my blogging-self and hopefully some readers of this blog.

One of my summer projects is to think about how to turn some of my more theoretical writing on law and film into a practical “how to” piece on lawyering in the courtroom with filmic evidence. To that end, I have been watching lots of police films (a subset of what I have called “evidence verite”). These films can be found without much effort on YouTube or VideoSpider. Anyone else out there know of good sites storing this kind of film footage, I would love to hear about it. I found one piece of footage that is the subject of a recent court case – Jones v. City of Cincinnati, 521 F.3d 555 (6th Cir. 2008) – which can be found here. This film, of the police using a tremendous amount of force to subdue Nathanial Jones (who subsequently died), is an excellent example of how the film frame (what is seen and what is not seen due to the limits of the camera’s size and angle) can affect the viewer’s response to the images. When watching this film, we must imagine the blows delivered and the pain received because both are off-camera. How we imagine them might depend on our experience with police brutality more generally. (We do hear the police and the criminal suspect protesting loudly.) Do we imagine Hollywood violence (which way does that cut for the defendant here)? Do we have any experience seeing this kind of violence first or second hand so that it is hard to imagine anything but the worst? The boundaries of imagination are hard to predict and therefore a formidable opponent in a court of law. Imagination is obviously not evidence in a court of law, although it likely wields mighty influence nonetheless. A former student suggested to me that not seeing the blows Nathanial Jones suffered makes us more callous to the pain he received. I tend to think that is the case.

The Sixth Circuit in Jones v. City of Cincinnati affirmed the district court’s refusal to dismiss the case on defendant’s 12(b)(6) motion and said this in relation to the film: “Where the evidence ‘captures only part of the incident and would provide a distorted view of the events at issue,’ as the district court concluded with respect to the videotape, we do not require a court to consider that evidence on a 12(b)(6) motion.” Id. at 561. To this, I would say “no kidding,” but we will have to wait and see what the trial court does on a Rule 56 motion. Given the Supreme Court’s decision in Scott v. Harris, I remain skeptical that a court can resist the myth of film’s obviousness and objectivity.

For those who need a refresher, Scott v. Harris was the 2007 Supreme Court case concerning a high speed police chase that resulted in the police ramming the suspect’s car causing him to become a quadriplegic. A police camera on the cruiser recorded the chase from the point of view of the police car, and the Supreme Court said that the trial court should have considered the facts in that case “in the light depicted by the videotape” despite contradictory testimony. For an excellent analysis of the flaws of that case, see Howard Wasserman’s short piece here . For an even shorter analysis, see my Op-Ed here . For a longer more empirical analysis of the video in the case, see Kahan et al. here.

How do courts and lawyers deal with filmic evidence in light of film’s inevitably partial nature? That is what my new piece is working through with some practical tips on cross-examining film in a courtroom. The piece should be up on-line soon. For those who want a preview, feel free to email me.

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1 Response

  1. Bruce Boyden says:

    Errol Morris has been doing a great series of blog posts on film and reality over at the New York Times:

    In particular, scroll down for his 3-part series entitled “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?” on 2 photos by Roger Fenton during the Crimean War. It’s captivating, although long.

    Other interesting posts concern the re-enactments in his film “Thin Blue Line” and their relationship to truth and a notorious photograph from Abu Graib.