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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. It appears the police and prosecutors are allowed to change the rules halfway through the game to suit themselves. I am surprised that the congress has not yet eliminated the right to a trial in cases involving any type of forensic evidence. That would suit their foolish law and order police state views. I say we eliminate the statute of limitations for crimes committed by members of congress and other government employees. Of course they would never do that. They are all corrupt cowards!!!

  2. Poor Judge Brown probably thought that by slavishly serving the godz of the age her violations of 18th century concepts like due process and the rule of law would be overlooked. Mayhaps she was merely a Judge ahead of her time?

  3. in a lawyer discipline case Judge Brown, now removed, was presiding over a hearing about a lawyer accused of the supposedly heinous ethical violation of saying the words "Illegal immigrant." (IN re Barker) http://www.in.gov/judiciary/files/order-discipline-2013-55S00-1008-DI-429.pdf .... I wonder if when we compare the egregious violations of due process by Judge Brown, to her chiding of another lawyer for politically incorrectness, if there are any conclusions to be drawn about what kind of person, what kind of judge, what kind of apparatchik, is busy implementing the agenda of political correctness and making off-limits legit advocacy about an adverse party in a suit whose illegal alien status is relevant? I am just asking the question, the reader can make own conclsuion. Oh wait-- did I use the wrong adjective-- let me rephrase that, um undocumented alien?

  4. of course the bigger questions of whether or not the people want to pay for ANY bussing is off limits, due to the Supreme Court protecting the people from DEMOCRACY. Several decades hence from desegregation and bussing plans and we STILL need to be taking all this taxpayer money to combat mostly-imagined "discrimination" in the most obviously failed social program of the postwar period.

  5. You can put your photos anywhere you like... When someone steals it they know it doesn't belong to them. And, a man getting a divorce is automatically not a nice guy...? That's ridiculous. Since when is need of money a conflict of interest? That would mean that no one should have a job unless they are already financially solvent without a job... A photographer is also under no obligation to use a watermark (again, people know when a photo doesn't belong to them) or provide contact information. Hey, he didn't make it easy for me to pay him so I'll just take it! Well heck, might as well walk out of the grocery store with a cart full of food because the lines are too long and you don't find that convenient. "Only in Indiana." Oh, now you're passing judgement on an entire state... What state do you live in? I need to characterize everyone in your state as ignorant and opinionated. And the final bit of ignorance; assuming a photo anyone would want is lucky and then how much does your camera have to cost to make it a good photo, in your obviously relevant opinion?

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