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Law of Criminal Defense - Anatomy of a Murder: "The Lecture"

Anatomy of a Murder: "The Lecture"


Permalink 10:19:22 am, by forhall, 1048 words, 88492 views   English (US)
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Anatomy of a Murder: "The Lecture"

Robert Traver, Anatomy of a Murder Ch 5, 37–38 (1958):

[To the client]“… [T]here are only about three basic defenses: one, that it didn’t happen but was instead a suicide or accident or what not; two, that whether it happened or not you didn’t do it, such as alibi, mistaken identity and so forth; and three, that even if it happened and you did it, your action was legally justified or excusable.” I paused to see how my student was doing.

The Lieutenant grew thoughtful. “Where do I fit in that rosy picture?” he responded nicely.

“I can tell you better where you don’t fit,” I went on. “Since a whole barroom full of people saw you shoot down Barney Quill in apparent cold blood, you scarcely fit in the first two classes of defenses. I’m afraid we needn’t waste time on those.” I paused. “If you fit anywhere it’s got to be in the third. So we’d better bear down on that.”

“You mean,” Lieutenant Manion said, “that my only possible defense in this case is to find some justification or excuse?”

My lecture was proceeding nicely according to schedule. “You’re learning rapidly,” I said, nodding approvingly. “Merely add legal justification or excuse and I’ll mark you an A.”

“And you said that a man is not justified in killing a man who has just raped and beat up his wife?”

“Morally, perhaps, but not legally. Not after it’s all over, as it was here.” … “You see, Lieutenant,” I went on, “it’s not the act of killing a man that makes it murder; it is the circumstances, the time, and a state of mind or purpose which induced the act.” …

The Lieutenant’s eyes narrowed and flickered ever so little. “Maybe,” he began, and cleared his throat. “On second thought, maybe I did catch Quill in the act. I’ve not precisely told the police one way or the other.” His eyes regarded me quietly, steadily. This man, I saw, was not only an apt student of the Lecture; like most people (including lawyers) he indubitably possessed a heart full of larceny. He was also, perhaps instinctively, trying to turn the Lecture on his lawyer. “I’ve never really told them,” he concluded.

A lawyer in the midst of his Lecture is apt to cling to the slenderest reed to bolster his wavering virtue. “But you’ve told me,” I said, pausing complacently, swollen with rectitude, grateful for the swift surge of virtue he’d afforded me… .

Id. Ch. 6, at 45–47 (1958) (after explaining defenses):

“Then finally there’s the defense of insanity.” I paused and spoke abruptly, airily: “Well, that just about winds it up.” I arose as though making ready to leave.

“Tell me more.”

“There is no more.” I slowly paced up and down the room.

“I mean about this insanity.”

“Oh, insanity,” I said, elaborately surprised. It was like luring a trained seal with a herring.

“Well, insanity, where proven, is a complete defense to murder. It does not legally justify the killing, like say self-defense, say, but rather excuses it.” The lecturer was hitting his stride. He was also on the home stretch. “Our law requires that a punishable killing—in fact, any crime—must be committed by a sapient human being, one capable, as the law insists, of distinguishing between right and wrong. If a man is insane, legally insane, the act of homicide may still be murder but the law excuses the perpetrator.”

Lieutenant Manion was sitting erect now, very still and erect. “I see—and this—this perpetrator, what happens to him if he should—should be excused?”

“… [I]f he is acquitted of murder on the grounds of insanity it is provided that he must be sent to a hospital for the criminally insane until he is pronounced sane.” …
My man was baying along the scent now. “How long does it take to get him out of there?”

“Out of where?” I asked innocently.

“Out of this insane hospital!”

“Oh, you mean where a man claims he was insane at the time of the offense but is sane at the time of the trial and his possible acquittal?”


“I don’t know,” I said, stroking my chin. “Months, maybe a year. It really takes a bit of doing. Being D.A. so long I’ve never really had to study that phase of it. I got them in there; it was somebody else’s problem to spring them. And I didn’t dawn this defense might come up in your case.”

My naïvete was somewhat excessive; it had been obvious to me from merely reading the newspaper the night before that insanity was the best, if not the only, legal defense the man had. And here I’d just slammed shut every other escape hatch and told him this was the last. Only a cretin could have missed it, and I was rapidly learning that Lieutenant Manion was no cretin.

I paused and knocked out my pipe. The Lecture was about over. The rest was up to the student. The Lieutenant looked out the window… . I sat very still. Then he looked at me. “Maybe,” he said “maybe I was insane.”

Thoughtfully: “Hm… . Why do you say that?”

“Well, I can’t really say,” he went on slowly. “I—I guess I blacked out. I can’t remember a thing after I saw him standing behind the bar that night until I got back to my trailer.” [I don’t remember driving home or threatening him in front of the bartender.]

“My, my,” I said, blinking my eyes, contemplating the wonder of it all. “Maybe you’ve got something there.”

The Lecture was over; I had told my man the law; and now he had told me things that might possibly invoke the defense of insanity. It had all been done with mirrors. Or rather with padded hammers.

Actually, the movie version is more memorable, but only the book explains the lawyer's thought processes. In the movie, you'll remember, the lawyer explaining to another what he had to do to demonstrate the thought process.

These passages are quoted in Professional Responsibility of the Criminal Defense Lawyer § 25:2 n. 6 (3d ed. 2005).

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