The teacher tells a story:
There have been a series of murders. Five elderly women have been killed; their pocketbooks and welfare checks stolen. Two undercover cops notice a shady-looking guy walking down the street. When the cops begin to follow him, the guy takes off running. During the chase the guy drops something into a garbage can, and runs into a house. The cops stop at the garbage can because they are certain that the guy threw a gun in it. But they also know that they can’t look in the can because they don’t have a warrant. If the guy ran into his own house, then the garbage is his “private property” and he has a right to it. The cops also know that a warrant is going to take time. A judge has to agree that there is reasonable cause to search the guy’s garbage can and/or his house. The cops know they don’t have time because while they’re waiting for a warrant, the guy might get away. Just then a garbage truck pulls up to the garbage can. Things are looking up for the cops. Once the garbage is in the truck, it’s “public property,” and they are well within their rights to search it which they do. They find the gun. As it turns out, it’s the right gun. There’s a ballistics match which means that the bullets found in the victims match up with the gun that they were fired from. With reasonable cause, warrants are issued and the guy’s house is searched which uncovers lots of evidence—pocketbooks and jewelry belonging to the victims. When the guy is confronted with that evidence, he confesses to having committed the murders. All sewn up nice and neat, right?
After students are presented with this scenario, they are asked to predict what will happen when the perpetrator is brought to court. Given the facts, as well as the conscientiousness of the detectives, it is presumed that most students will figure on a conviction. However, the movie from which this scenario is drawn (whose title shall be revealed later on) will show just the opposite. The courtroom scene is then shown to the students wherein the prosecution presents all the evidence of the case. Then the defense attorney begins to question the officer on the witness stand by asking, “What kind of garbage truck was it?”
As it turns out, it was a truck with a scoop in the back and the garbage that the officers looked through to find the gun was the garbage thrown in the scoop from the defendant’s can. Since it hadn’t been mixed in with the other garbage in the main body of the truck, it was still his, the defendant’s, private property. Without a search warrant, the officers violated the defendant’s constitutional rights, and any subsequent evidence they turned up, including the defendant’s confession, then became inadmissible in a court of law. Since the prosecution could not be allowed to use any of the evidence, they no longer had a case, and upon the defense attorney’s request for dismissal, the case was dismissed.
The teacher tells another story:
There is another series of murders. This time it’s boys—eight murders in all. The police know that the boys were taken away from the murder scene and their bodies were dropped elsewhere. In the last case, one of the boy’s sneakers was missing from the scene. One night two patrol officers spot a raggedy-looking van. It looks as if it’s going to stop at a liquor store, but when the driver notices the police car, he takes off rather quickly. The cops follow the van and call in to headquarters to check its license plate. Headquarters reports back that the van has outstanding traffic warrants (unpaid tickets). The cops signal the van, and the driver pulls over. Upon questioning the driver, the officer smells marijuana, and tells the driver to open up the back of the van. When the driver does, the other cop uses his flashlight to look inside and is shocked to find a bloody sneaker. The two men in the van are arrested for the serial murders of the eight boys and later brought to trial.
From their experience with the first case students have become aware of legal loopholes and will probably suspect that this case will be thrown out of court as well. They will be told that their suspicions are correct. The case does, in fact, get thrown out, but they will also be asked to suggest the reasons why. Based on the first case, they will more than likely challenge the search and seizure procedure of the patrol officers which appeared somewhat negligent. However, the clip of the courtroom scene that they will see regarding this case will show the prosecutor offering a legal precedent that justifies the officers’ behavior. The defense attorney acknowledges the precedent, but argues that the initial traffic warrants that had prompted the police to pull the van over had, in fact, been paid. Therefore, there were no outstanding warrants, and any subsequent actions taken by the police were in violation of the defendants’ rights. The judge is once again forced to deny the prosecution use of the evidence. The prosecuting attorney argues that the police were unaware that the warrants had been paid and that they acted in good faith. She pleads to the judge to allow her to use the evidence or else she doesn’t have a case; how can he let two murderers go free because of a clerical error? The judge reprimands her for sloppy case work, and justifies his decision by stating that he will not rule in favor of the evidence just to have a conviction overturned in the appellate court. Once again the case is dismissed.
The video tape is stopped at this point and students are asked to put themselves in the position of the judge: “What would you do?” By now students have seen murder let go unpunished by the judicial system—the murder of old ladies and young boys. How can this be fair? When defense attorneys get smart enough to manipulate the law, is there any hope for justice?
“But you’re a judge,” they are told, “Your job is to uphold the integrity of the law. What else can you do but what this judge did?”
The obvious answer is to stop being a judge; to take the law into one’s own hands and set things right. Because of the dramatic tension created by good’s unrequited triumph over evil in these cases, students are motivated (if not manipulated) in the direction of righteous outrage. In my experience, children have a very clear sense of right and wrong, and are not too pleased with the conflict that sometimes does exist between statutory and interpersonal justice. The tape is continued and the next few scenes offered should appease any outraged students regarding the judge and his decisions because he follows their advice by taking matters into his own hands.
The movie is called “The Star Chamber,” and features Michael Douglas as judge Steve Hardin, Hal Holbrook as a supreme court judge and Hardin’s old law professor, and Yaphet Koto as the chief detective in charge of the serial murders. While the message in the first half of the movie could be stated as “justice above all,” a surprising plot twist ingeniously turns righteous indignation on its head and validates the rationale of due process and “justice for all.” This last part of the film (in which the parties presumed guilty are shown to be innocent after all) will be shown to the students after the earlier episodes have been discussed.
“The Star Chamber” is rated R due to language and some violent scenes, but the movie has also been edited for prime-time television. The clips to be shown to students will be taken from the TV version, and the story will be presented in narratives as well as clips (scenes) from the video tape.
The Star Chamber, the 14th century English court after which the movie is titled, will also be explained to students after the tape is completed. This court was composed of royal councilors who sat without a jury and were guided by the king. It was given its name because of the stars depicted on the ceiling of the main meeting room in the king’s palace of Westminster where the members met. From its inception (in the reign of Edward III), it was one of the king’s council’s regular meeting places, and although various courts of common law arose from the 12th century onward, the king did not surrender his power of supreme jurisdiction over the courts. This was an inquisitorial and criminal court that the king administered mostly through his council. It eventually became noted for its arbitrary methods and severe punishments (especially involving ecclesiastical matters), and was abolished in 1641. In modern times, the term “The Star Chamber” has come to denote any tribunal, committee, or group that proceeds by arbitrary or unfair methods.
As an exercise, students can improvise scenes—convening their own tribunal, The Peer Pressure Chamber—to conduct mock trials. The character of the tribunal members should resemble modernized star chamber councilors, such as those people who belong to gangs or are part of cliques that exclude and/or harass others. The objective of the scene work is to demonstrate (seriously or humorously) the ill effects and injustice of such groups.
In order to more clearly demonstrate the process and purpose of the law today, and why it needs to be upheld even in the teeth of common sense and human decency (as appeared to be the case in the first half of the movie), a criminal defense lawyer and her assistant, a real-life private eye (two friends of mine), will visit our class. The Constitution and The Bill of Rights will be addressed, and the legal focus will be directed to some interpretations of the law concerning Miranda rights, and search and seizure procedures that are related to the movie. The nuts and bolts of criminal law will be presented as our attorney tells us how she prepares for a case, and our private eye gives us a few tips on sleuthing.