Runaway Jury

 

This movie, starring John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Rachel Weisz, is based on the novel by John Grisham entitled The Runaway Jury (Doubleday, N.Y. 1995).

The following quotes from the book are from the Dell 1996 edition.

 

The book/movie is about jury tampering, illegal activities by lawyers and their co-conspirators, revenge, and the tobacco industry and how it knowingly destroys lives.  Cusack plays Nicholas Easter, age 27, who is on a jury hearing a trial related to the death of a smoker.  It is billed as the most important such trial ever and the tobacco industry is willing to do anything to win the trial.  Hoffman plays Wendall Rohr the lawyer attacking the tobacco industry and Hackman plays the part of Rankin Fitch the behind-the-scenes agent for the industry who is bankrolled to bribe and threaten whoever he has to in order to win. 

 

Both sides in the struggle spend great sums of money hiring jury consultants and investigators to find out all they can about the jurors so that they can try their best to select the best jury possible.  They are somewhat puzzled over Easter as they can find out little about him.  But both sides run out of challenges and so Easter is seated on the jury.

 

It has taken four years of litigation before the trial finally gets to the jury selection stage as the tobacco lawyers do everything possible to delay the battle as they have the resources for a lengthy fight and the opposition rarely does.  Time is their ally, the enemy of the anti-tobacco forces.

 

For both sides it is not about justice or what is fair.  It is about money, power, and the thrill of the contest.  If the anti-tobacco team of lawyers, each of whom has put up $1,000,000 to fight the case, win, they know they will get tons of other cases and fame and money will flow their way.  “Nothing rivaled the thrill of big-time litigation” (p. 23).

 

In the process of jury selection, both sides investigate the prospective jurors as best they can.  They cannot go and talk to them but indirectly investigate their backgrounds, talk to friends and neighbors, take pictures of them, look up their financial backgrounds, etc.  Then the jurors fill out lengthy questionnaires answering questions that both sides have developed that are designed to learn more about them.  Then finally they get to ask the jurors questions.  We learn early on the Easter has been preparing for this process.  He has studied the questionnaire process and gives answers that both sides will find acceptable.  Therefore, we learn early on that Easter is up to something and this intrigue helps to draw the audience into the story by wondering what is really going on.

 

Easter “knew that before dark today an entire committee of handwriting experts on both sides would be poring over his words, not caring so much about what he said but more about how he formed his letters.  He wanted to appear neat and thoughtful, intelligent and open-minded, capable of hearing with both ears and deciding matters fairly, an arbitrator they would clamor for.  He’d read three books on the ins and outs of handwriting analysis” (p. 41).

 

The reader also soon learns that Easter has been involved in trying to get on other juries related to tobacco.  This is not the first such case he has tried to get on, only the first jury he has successfully been seated on.

 

But Easter has greater plans than just being on the jury.  He wants to control it.  He understands that: “Every jury has a leader, and that’s where you find your verdict” (p. 65).

 

Rohr, the Hoffman character, does everything by design.  “Rohr was a performer, a seasoned actor whose crooked bow tie and clicking dentures and mismatched clothing were designed to endear him to the average man.  He wasn’t perfect.  Let the defense lawyers, in their impeccable dark suits and rich silk ties, talk down their long noses at these jurors.  But not Rohr.  These were his people” (p. 69).  “Rohr had a jury consultant assigned to record everything the jurors wore.  If one of the five men happened to wear cowboy boots one day, then Rohr had an old pair at the ready” (p. 96).

 

We soon see that Easter has an outside accomplice, her name is Marlee (played by Rachel Weisz) and Fitch soon sees how she is able to predict in advance what the jury will do so that she demonstrates that she and Easter have control of the jury.  Eventually she asks him for $10,000,000 in exchange for the verdict he desires and he is willing to pay her.  However, we now have a race going on.  Fitch is trying to figure out who Easter and Marlee are, as both of them have false identities.  He has investigators all over trying to find out.  At the same time he is also manipulating other jurors to ensure that he gets the verdict he wants one way or the other.  With a sting operation he gets the husband of one juror believing that he has broken the law and the fake FBI agents make a deal with him---he can stay out of prison only if his wife votes for the tobacco interests.  One of the jurors has the company he works for bought by the tobacco conglomerate and promised a big promotion if he votes in their favor.  Rohr also tries unsuccessfully to bribe the boyfriend of one of the jurors---the boyfriend gets the money and gambles with it and gets drunk and arrested for DUI and then gets out only to get arrested again when he desperately tries to sneak into the hotel where his girlfriend is at so that he can influence her vote as he had promised.  Meanwhile Easter is having fun tormenting the judge, getting special favors for the jury, and leading them in a pledge of allegiance to the flag, seeing that they get to go deep sea fishing on their day off, getting jurors kicked off the jury and replaced with the alternates, and eventually becoming the foreman of the jury---after he poisons the other foreman!  (Note: with all the games going on, it would be very easy to play this as either a very serious drama or as an outrageous comedy.  As I type this I have yet to see the movie and wonder how the director has decided whether it is one or the other.  Gresham sees the lawyers, the jury consultants, the private investigators, the judge, and most of the jurors as stupid/comic characters.  He has only a positive attitude toward Marlee and Easter.  Everyone else is there in the story to be their ploys.  And these two characters are mysterious as we know very little about them except that they are both very smart.) 

 

But basically we have a race going on.  Will Marlee’s true identity, one she wants hidden, be discovered before Fitch pays her the $10 million?  Just who is Marlee and what is she up to?  This chase process is an old ploy used by dramatists for centuries and employed effectively by screenwriters to get the audience deeply involved in wondering what will happen, who will win?

 

Fitch learns who Easter is and that he is a law school dropout and that he had tried to get on other tobacco trials.  But he just can’t come up with anything on Marlee.  Clearly she has money as she drives nice cars and has an expensive apartment.  But she has covered her tracks well and Fitch can’t find out anything about her except that she met Easter when he was in law school.  But he never gives up despite the fact that Marlee tells him to knock off the investigation or else she will turn the jury against him.  This doesn’t stop Fitch, he only becomes more careful in his search and more convinced that he needs to know more about her since she doesn’t want him to find out something from her past.

 

Fitch is able to find out more about Easter through his computer files after he has his agents break into his apartment and burn it down to cover their tracks.  Fitch now knows that Easter is really Jeff Kerr who graduated from Rice University with a degree in psychology before going to law school.  But even this doesn’t get him to find out who Marlee is….????

 

Meanwhile the trial is proceeding and we hear all the expert witnesses from both sides.  We see how deadly tobacco is and how the tobacco interests use their advertising dollars and the nicotine content of their product to ensure addicted users who start their addiction in their teens.  We also see the experts from the tobacco industry refute what the other experts say and see how some of the research they use has been paid for by the tobacco interests without the researcher even knowing this.  We also see how they use experts that the jury will like, attractive and seductive women, men who play well to the jury.  Neither side takes anything for granted and both sides play every trick in the book to play upon the emotions of the jury so that they will win.

 

NOTE: Please keep in mind that this same process is employed in every trial to some extent---not just in tobacco trials.  The extent is only determined by how important the trial is and how well bankrolled the two sides are. 

 

As the trial starts to come to an end, Fitch finally starts to uncover who Marlee really is.  She is Gabrielle Brant.  Her beloved father and mother both were hooked on cigarettes and died unpleasantly from cancer.  She has taken the inheritance from her parents and used it to bankroll the four year long effort to get back at the tobacco people.  She is Fitch’s enemy, not his helper!  Fitch realizes this only after he has paid out the money and the case is in the hands of the jury that is deliberating and we see that Easter/Jeff is doing all he can to ensure a very large punitive damage decision against the tobacco company.  This has been the plan all along.

 

The following is what Easter says to help convince the jury: “I’m convinced cigarettes are dangerous and deadly; they kill four hundred thousand people a year; they’re loaded with nicotine by their makers, who’ve known for a long time that the stuff is addictive; they could be a lot safer if the companies wanted, but the nicotine would be reduced and thus sales would suffer.  I think cigarettes killed Jacob Wood, and none of you will argue this.  I’m convinced the tobacco companies lie and cheat and cover up, and do everything in their power to get kids to smoke.  They’re a ruthless bunch of sonofabitches, and I say we stick it to them” (p. 524).

 

We see Marlee take the millions from Fitch and use it to make 8 more millions as she knows what the jury decision will be and that the stock will fall and she is ready to cash in on this.  Easter/Jeff escapes after the trial and joins Marlee/Gabrielle on the beach.   They are successful and rich!  The end…..oooops…not quite.

 

In the final three pages of the book Grisham has Marlee/Gabrielle visit Fitch and give him the $10 million back!  (She keeps the $8 million she ‘earned’ playing the stock market with the $10 million.)  She does this saying “I’m not a thief.  I lied and I cheated because that’s what your client understands” (p. 549).  (I find this one of the weakest points in the novel.  Give money back!  Come on!  Not a thief.  Hog wash.  She manipulated the stock market and stole relatively innocent people’s money in the process…people far more innocent than those she took the $10 million from!)

 

But then she goes on to say why she really is visiting Fitch: “We’ll watch the appeal closely, and if your lawyers get too carried away attacking the verdict, then I’ve got copies of the wire transfers.  Be careful, Fitch.  We’re kind of proud of that verdict, and we’re always watching….And remember, Fitch, next time you boys go to trial, we’ll be there” (p. 550).  These are the final words.

 

How might you have changed the ending?

 

How might you take on some other powerful industry in a similar type of case?  It is not only tobacco that is undermining our nation.  What other industries should we attack? 

 

How might we change the legal system so that juries are not manipulated in this way?

 

These are the unspoken questions that this novel is asking you to think about.

 

Now the movie is very different than the book.  Since big tobacco has lost in the courts, they changed the movie to gun manufacturers.  They changed it in a number of other ways so the book and the movie are very different and the book is far superior to the movie.  But that is not the point I want to focus on.  Social workers are change agents and choice developers.   We help clients expand their awareness and see new alternatives they were not aware of before our involvement.   But we inevitably discover that options and choices are limited for our clients so we then need to become choice creators---by that I mean we have to create new organizations and resources that don’t exist at present.