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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. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  2. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  3. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  4. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  5. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

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