Often times expert witnesses get a bum rap in the movies and television, coloring the public’s view of them. There are a plethora of movies that portray expert witness testimony in a very poor light indeed, perhaps adding to the public’s unfounded suspicion when they encounter one in a real trial. Here we present our list of the 5 Worst Movie Examples of Expert Witnesses. Let us know if you agree with our selection of flicks!
1. The Verdict
In this 1982 courtroom drama, Paul Newman, as down-on-his-luck attorney Frank Galvin, nearly loses his medical malpractice case when his first expert court witness disappears and his substitute witness is torn apart on the stand.
As if that weren’t a big enough hit to the reputations of expert court witnesses, we later see a medical expert, Dr. Towler, who is testifying for the defense, being coached by a team of high-powered lawyers on how to respond to cross-examination in such a way as to avoid telling the truth.
That doesn’t stop Galvin from winning the day when he presents a surprise witness whose testament causes Dr. Towler to either admit to being guilty or backpedal on his earlier expert witness opinion.
2. A Time to Kill
In A Time to Kill, the 1996 movie adaption of John Grisham’s novel of the same name, Matthew McConaughey stars as Jake Brigance, a small-town defense lawyer in the racially charged town of Canton, Mississippi, defending Carl Lee Hailey (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a Black father who shoots and kills two Klansmen after they brutally rape and beat his 10-year old daughter.
Deciding to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, Brigance decides he needs a psychology expert to back up his claim; thankfully for him, his law school mentor (played by Donald Sutherland) knows a psychiatrist who apparently “owes him a favor.”
In the movie, both the prosecution (Kevin Spacey as the D.A.) and defense present obviously fake expert witness testimony. Both psychiatric witnesses are thoroughly discredited on cross-examination, presenting scientific witnesses as “guns for hire” who will say anything a paying lawyer wants them to.
3. A Few Good Men
In this 1992 military courtroom drama with an all-star cast, the prosecution’s case hinges on the expert witness opinion of Dr. Stone (played by Christopher Guest), a physician and naval commander who lies on the stand to help his colleagues cover up the questionable death of a Marine at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
As we hurtle toward the film’s explosive ending, Stone’s testimony is thoroughly discredited as defense attorney Lieutenant Danny Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) confronts the base’s commanding officer (played by Jack Nicholson) and exposes the cover up. In one of the most famous scenes from any movie, Cruise presses Nicholson, saying “I want the truth!” only to be scornfully told “You can’t handle the truth!”
(Coincidentally, A Few Good Men, as well as other movies, show some glaring movie courtroom mistakes.)
4. Primal Fear
In this 1996 crime drama with more plot twists than a pretzel, Richard Gere plays attorney Martin Vail, defending altar boy Aaron Stampler (played by Edward Norton), who is accused of murdering a popular archbishop. Despite the considerable amount of evidence pointing to Stampler’s guilt, Vail believes him innocent after having him evaluated by a psychiatrist and after hearing that the archbishop has been sexually abusing altar boys.
In a perfect example of an expert witness testifying because she badly wants something to be true, Dr. Molly Arrington (played by Frances McDormand), convinced that Stampler suffers from multiple personality disorder as a result of sexual abuse by his own father and re-ignited from the archbishop’s abuse, presses Vail to let her testify so she can help him win the case.
Molly’s expert witness opinion convinces the jury (and Vail) that Stampler is mentally ill. Stampler gets off only to reveal to Vail at the end of the film that he’s a sociopath and that he did indeed commit not one but two murders.
5. My Cousin Vinny
This 1992 comedy has the unique distinction of portraying both the worst and best use of expert witness testimony in any legal film.
The hilarious send-up of uptight courtrooms stars Joe Pesci as inexperienced lawyer Vinny Gambini, and Marisa Tomei as his love interest Mona Lisa Vito, who used to work at her father’s car repair shop as a mechanic. Gambini is called upon to defend his cousin and a friend in a murder trial, where the state’s case rests largely on the testimony of forensic expert witness George Wilbur, an FBI analyst, who testifies that tire tracks found at the scene of the crime match those on the defendants’ car.
In the film’s crucial scene, Gambini calls Vito to the stand, where it becomes quickly apparent that it is she who is the expert witness and not the FBI analyst who has only worked in a lab. Vito’s testimony proves that the defendants were not involved in any way in the crime, which Wilbur himself has to admit.
After reading our list of the 5 Worst Movie Examples of Expert Witnesses, what other movies show expert witness opinion in a negative light? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment!