AS A LAWYER, RALPH BELLAMY WAS INDEFENSIBLE
It’s a good thing this story wasn’t part of the actual series. Otherwise we might not all be here right now.
I’m so old, I watched Perry Mason first run not on the reruns playing on every channel this side of C-SPAN. But it’s not why I became a lawyer. Perry Mason was unrealistic. A murder trial every week where the real murderer was dumb enough to sit in the courtroom and watch. No, Perry Mason didn’t make me want to become a lawyer. The Defenders did.
The Defenders was a show about a middle-aged attorney – played by E.G. Marshall – and his fresh-out-of-law-school son – played by a young, pre-permed Robert Reed. Although the show had some murder mystery episodes, most dealt with some of the complex and serious issues of the time; abortion, religious intolerance, capital punishment, civil rights, conscientious objectors… Come to think of it, those are still some of the complex and serious issues of the time.
The lawyers from The Defenders first appeared in a two-part episode of the anthology series Studio One in Hollywood called “The Defender.” Walter Preston (Ralph Bellamy) and son Kenneth (a young, and not-yet-needing-the-hell-toupée William Shatner) were defending Joseph Gordon (Steve McQueen), who was on trial for murdering a woman during a robbery. Father and son argued over how best to defend the man.
I knew about “The Defender” but had never seen it. Until I found it as a special feature on the aforementioned Shout! Factory DVD set. Now I have seen it.
And wish I hadn’t. Because it was stupid!
The actual pilot episode for The Defenders used the same basic story. The Prestons were representing a man accused of felony murder. Father thinks he’s guilty. Son doesn’t. They argue over how to defend him best. But The Defenders did the story much better.
How was it better? Well, let’s start with Walter Preston.
Wait! Actually, let’s start with the SPOILER WARNING! I’m about to reveal all the important plot points of “The Defender.” If you don’t want all the important plot points of “The Defender” revealed, you might want to stop reading. END OF SPOILER WARNING
Okay, now let’s start with Walter Preston. Walter was a jaded lawyer who took one look at his client and decided Gordon was guilty. Okay, that part’s not so stupid. Lawyers do that all the time. The stupid part was Walter decided his guilty client only deserved a competent defense but not one good enough that the jury might actually acquit him. Walter even refused to use the “guy” Kenneth found who might have been able to secure an acquittal.
Walter violated every legal ethic there is. And maybe even a few that aren’t but should be. Particularly the one requiring a lawyer to represent his client zealously. Walter was required to do everything he could to obtain a result that was in Gordon’s best interests instead of going through the motions with a defense that was just good enough to lose.
Kenneth, strangely enough, wanted to do the job properly and, you know, get Gordon acquitted. Kenneth was young, idealistic and didn’t understand the concept of being more jaded than a Chinese jewelry store. Kenneth even wanted to use the “guy. Walter didn’t. They argued. A lot!
Then Walter had a conversation with Francis Toohey, the prosecuting attorney played by a still-hirsute Martin Balsam. Toohey never cared whether defendants were guilty or innocent. They’d been indicted and Toohey was paid to get them convicted. So that’s what he did. Not caring whether some of them might actually be innocent was how he slept at night.
Toohey’s attitude angered Walter. It should also anger other prosecutors. See, the first ethical cannon for a prosecutor is that a prosecutor should seek justice, not convictions. If a prosecutor feels a defendant is not guilty, the prosecutor should not prosecute. And he shouldn’t not think about a defendant’s possible innocence, just so he can sleep at night.
Walter was so enraged he decided he should actually do his job and try for an acquittal. Toward that end he used the “guy.”
The state’s key witnesses were two eyewitnesses who testified they saw Gordon coming out of the victim’s apartment at the time of the murder. Nothing else connected Gordon to the crime. Maybe it was my legal training; my plotting experience from being a writer; or my many, many, many years of watching television clichés, but I knew who the “guy” was as soon as Kenneth mentioned him back in the First Act of Part One. I spent two hours waiting for a “surprise” conclusion I knew was coming since the first act. It was kind of like watching an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but with better directing.
You probably know who this “guy” was, too. But let’s play it out anyway. The show did.
Walter called the two eyewitnesses back to the stand and had them look at trial table. He asked them, “Are you sure this is the man you saw coming out of the apartment?” Both answered yes. Then Walter revealed the big Gotcha. The witnesses didn’t identify the defendant. Gordon was in the back of the courtroom. They identified this “guy” that Kenneth found who looked like Gordon and who they put at the defense table during some courtroom confusion to fool the eyewitnesses.
I had a few problems with this resolution. First the actor playing the “guy” looked nothing like Steve McQueen. When this episode aired, I was only 4 and I looked more like Steve McQueen. Neither witness should have been fooled into identifying the “guy” by mistake.
Second, Gordon never made bail. He was still in jail and was brought into the courtroom by guards and bailiffs. How did Walter and Kenneth swap Gordon out for the “guy” without any of the bailiffs or guards, who were supposed to be watching Gordon at all times, seeing what they did?
Third, what Walter was doing was so freakin’ obvious, both eyewitnesses should have seen through it and answered, “No that’s not the man I saw coming from the apartment. He’s in the back of the courtroom, where you tried to hide him.”
The case ended when the judge directed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty, because he found the eyewitness testimony to be unreliable. That probably wouldn’t happen in real life.
In real life, a judge would let the trial go to the jury first and see what it did with the case. If it came back not guilty, all was well. The judge wouldn’t have to look soft on crime by acquitting the defendant. If the jury returned a guilty verdict, then the judge could grant a motion for acquittal non obstante veredicto; a fancy Latin way of saying, I find the defendant not guilty notwithstanding the verdict, because the evidence wasn’t sufficient to support a conviction.
That’s the way it would probably have happened it real life. But I can’t blame the show for not going that route. This two-part drama that was full of legal inaccuracies and some outright silliness had already gone on long enough. This quick end to the story was its way of putting it out of our misery. Consider it mercy killing.
Come to think of it, mercy killing was another complex topic handled much better on The Defenders.