The Staircase Movie is Most Instructive

Trial work is theater work, and, movies can provide accurate illustrations of the best and worst trial techniques and strategies. Also, movie making and trial practice are very much about storytelling. Besides that, a good movie clip can enliven any lecture or discussion of trial practice. That’s why movies are so useful in teaching or learning about trial advocacy.

One of the best films about trial advocacy is The Staircase (Sundance, 2004), directed by Academy award winner Frenchman Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. The Staircase is a documentary about the Michael Peterson murder trial in Durham, North Carolina. Because the movie chronicles not only the trial but also behind the scene trial preparation by the prosecution and a well financed defense team, it is a valuable training video for trial advocacy professors and trainers and a nice resource for trial lawyers.

Favorite video clips for trial advocacy training are:

Good vs. Bad Fact Assessment Session: The defense team including a jury consultant, investigator, defense counsel and the defendant’s lawyer, brother and others meet to brainstorm good and bad facts, discuss how they affect the case and plan trial strategies.

Preparing the Defendant to Testify: Defense counsel and a witness coach go to a law school courtroom and run through exercises to prepare Peterson to testify, including having him hum tunes, recite sayings and practice cross. Of course, I’m not abandoning the expert preparation scene from the Verdict with James Mason, but this witness prep session in The Staircase is worth viewing.

Trial Visuals: The movie provides fine examples of trial visuals and how to use them in trial. The prosecution blood spatter expert has a large scale model of the staircase where Mrs. Peterson died, and a defense expert testifies with the aid of an animation showing the defense theory of how Mrs. Peterson fell down the stairs.

Closing Arguments: The movie shows defense counsel planning and then delivering closing. The two prosecutors’ closings show different styles, and prosecutor Black’s closing is remarkable. It has to be seen to be appreciated.

These are just a sampling of the many video clips that serve as demonstrations of how experienced trial lawyers work. For anyone wanting to know more about the case that the two-disc video can’t supply, you can visit websites about the case:

· courtTVnews has a very thorough collection including: videos; documents, photo gallery, daily articles and more.
· Behind the Staircase Exposing Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Film aims to do what the name indicates.