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Hammerle on ... 'West of Memphis,' 'Emperor'

Robert Hammerle
March 27, 2013
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bob hammerle movie reviewsWest of Memphis

The powerful “West of Memphis” details the wrongful conviction of three Arkansas teenagers for the killing of three 8-year-olds found submerged in a small creek in 1993. The three convicted kids, all loners and misfits, were subsequently incarcerated for close to 20 years before being released upon the discovery of new DNA evidence, among other things. Justice was perverted, not served, and the film shines a spotlight on a small community that temporarily lost its collective mind.

The film is a tribute to numerous people, not the least of which was Lorris Davis, a New York landscape architect who married one of the lads. Astonishingly, she was able to garner the support of Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. The brilliant filmmakers, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, produced this exposé, and I could only think of their phenomenal trilogy that began with “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001).

Such fellowship existed here, and the film focuses on the defense attorneys who fought this case for so long. One of them was the original trial counsel, and he appears in the film as a decent lawyer who simply refused to give up.

Even when the Arkansas Supreme Court eventually ordered a new trial, the elected prosecutor still looked for a reason to save face. In the end, all three innocent men had to enter what is known as Alford pleas in order to obtain their freedom. In other words, they had to plead guilty despite simultaneously maintaining their innocence if they wanted a guarantee of being released from prison.

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Quite frankly, I can’t help but wonder if any criminal defense lawyer has not experienced that convoluted moment when a client’s admission to a crime he didn’t commit will avoid an unsure trial and gain his immediate release from jail. My wife Monica Foster and I once represented a young man in Indianapolis that resulted in that very sad outcome.

He had served five years of a 110-year sentence before his conviction was reversed on appeal by Ms. Foster. The crime concerned a gas station robbery where the attendant was shot and blinded. We tried it a second time, and the jury hung after voting 9 to 3 for acquittal.

Thereafter, the prosecutor told us that if our client pleaded guilty he could walk home without being on probation. If he refused, he would again face the risk of trial. In the end, we had to watch that innocent young man plead guilty to this crime as tears filled his eyes, and I couldn’t forget that moment when I watched “West of Memphis.”

This is a movie of monumental importance to all lawyers, whether or not you practice as a criminal defense attorney. As said by General Bonner Fellers in the film “Emperor,” “Vengeance is not justice.” Atticus Finch realized that in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), and we lawyers should never forget it.

Emperor

“Emperor” opens a window into our past as you follow the quest of American intelligence officers who are given but 10 days to determine if Japanese Emperor Hirohito should be prosecuted as a war criminal at the end of World War II. Their task is profoundly difficult, particularly given the sad fact that much of urban Japan has been devastated by B-29 incendiary raids that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

The movie is seen through the eyes of U.S. General Bonner Fellers, played with gripping compassion by Matthew Fox. Interrogating individuals like former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, Fellers is forced to confront the enormous contradiction of condemning the military expansion of Japan while ignoring the history of brutal western colonization.

But as Fellers wrestles with his conscience, he is helped by the fact that he spent time in Japan before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. What privately torture

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s him is the agony flowing from the tragic fact that he has long been in love with a Japanese girl. He met Aya Shimada (a beautiful and charming Eriko Hatsune) in the States when both were attending college in the 1930s, and he accepted an assignment in Japan as referred to above in part to resume that relationship.

Fellers tries to determine the emperor’s culpability by day while spending his nights desperately trying to determine if Ms. Shimada is alive. Discovering that the grade school where she taught was destroyed in an allied attack, he is not helped by the role he previously played in identifying bombing targets.

Tommy Lee Jones gives an expected superior performance in his role as General Douglas MacArthur. More to the point, you quickly see MacArthur’s profound intelligence and incredible vanity.

As noted in Max Hastings’ great book “Retribution,” a story of the battle for Japan in 1944-45, the atmosphere surrounding MacArthur’s headquarters was considered profoundly unhealthy. Though MacArthur’s demeanor throughout the war became ever more autocratic, Mr. Jones does not ignore MacArthur’s fervent commitment to rebuild Japan. While the allies could not whitewash the prior conduct of the emperor, he appointed Fellers to the task because he needed a man who recognized the difference between vengeance and justice.

What made “Emperor” so compelling is that it follows a beautiful love story through frequent flashbacks. Two people whose hearts had bonded were forced apart by conflicting societies that simply did not understand the other. Forces were at work that were destroying much of the world, and how could they hope that their relationship would survive with them living in this monstrous environment.

Finally, I must note an emotionally mesmerizing scene where Fellers visits his lover’s family home after the war. In the process, he is reduced to tears as he talks with her father, a Japanese general who served at both Saipan and Okinawa. I wasn’t the only person in the theater fighting back those same tears, and you probably won’t be either.•

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Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his Pennsylvania Street office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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  1. On a related note, I offered the ICLU my cases against the BLE repeatedly, and sought their amici aid repeatedly as well. Crickets. Usually not even a response. I am guessing they do not do allegations of anti-Christian bias? No matter how glaring? I have posted on other links the amicus brief that did get filed (search this ezine, e.g., Kansas attorney), read the Thomas More Society brief to note what the ACLU ran from like vampires from garlic. An Examiner pledged to advance diversity and inclusion came right out on the record and demanded that I choose Man's law or God's law. I wonder, had I been asked to swear off Allah ... what result then, ICLU? Had I been found of bad character and fitness for advocating sexual deviance, what result then ICLU? Had I been lifetime banned for posting left of center statements denigrating the US Constitution, what result ICLU? Hey, we all know don't we? Rather Biased.

  2. It was mentioned in the article that there have been numerous CLE events to train attorneys on e-filing. I would like someone to provide a list of those events, because I have not seen any such events in east central Indiana, and since Hamilton County is one of the counties where e-filing is mandatory, one would expect some instruction in this area. Come on, people, give some instruction, not just applause!

  3. This law is troubling in two respects: First, why wasn't the law reviewed "with the intention of getting all the facts surrounding the legislation and its actual impact on the marketplace" BEFORE it was passed and signed? Seems a bit backwards to me (even acknowledging that this is the Indiana state legislature we're talking about. Second, what is it with the laws in this state that seem to create artificial monopolies in various industries? Besides this one, the other law that comes to mind is the legislation that governed the granting of licenses to firms that wanted to set up craft distilleries. The licensing was limited to only those entities that were already in the craft beer brewing business. Republicans in this state talk a big game when it comes to being "business friendly". They're friendly alright . . . to certain businesses.

  4. Gretchen, Asia, Roberto, Tonia, Shannon, Cheri, Nicholas, Sondra, Carey, Laura ... my heart breaks for you, reaching out in a forum in which you are ignored by a professional suffering through both compassion fatigue and the love of filthy lucre. Most if not all of you seek a warm blooded Hoosier attorney unafraid to take on the government and plead that government officials have acted unconstitutionally to try to save a family and/or rescue children in need and/or press individual rights against the Leviathan state. I know an attorney from Kansas who has taken such cases across the country, arguing before half of the federal courts of appeal and presenting cases to the US S.Ct. numerous times seeking cert. Unfortunately, due to his zeal for the constitutional rights of peasants and willingness to confront powerful government bureaucrats seemingly violating the same ... he was denied character and fitness certification to join the Indiana bar, even after he was cleared to sit for, and passed, both the bar exam and ethics exam. And was even admitted to the Indiana federal bar! NOW KNOW THIS .... you will face headwinds and difficulties in locating a zealously motivated Hoosier attorney to face off against powerful government agents who violate the constitution, for those who do so tend to end up as marginalized as Paul Odgen, who was driven from the profession. So beware, many are mere expensive lapdogs, the kind of breed who will gladly take a large retainer, but then fail to press against the status quo and powers that be when told to heel to. It is a common belief among some in Indiana that those attorneys who truly fight the power and rigorously confront corruption often end up, actually or metaphorically, in real life or at least as to their careers, as dead as the late, great Gary Welch. All of that said, I wish you the very best in finding a Hoosier attorney with a fighting spirit to press your rights as far as you can, for you do have rights against government actors, no matter what said actors may tell you otherwise. Attorneys outside the elitist camp are often better fighters that those owing the powers that be for their salaries, corner offices and end of year bonuses. So do not be afraid to retain a green horn or unconnected lawyer, many of them are fine men and woman who are yet untainted by the "unique" Hoosier system.

  5. I am not the John below. He is a journalist and talk show host who knows me through my years working in Kansas government. I did no ask John to post the note below ...

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