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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Are R-rated movies too disturbing for jurors?: One Alaskan Judge Thinks They Are

A student in my Evidence class brought in an article about an interesting ruling in an Alaskan court.  Mechele Linehan is on trial for allegedly masterminding the decade-old murder of her husband.  The theory of the case is that she convinced John Carlin III, her former fiance, to kill her husband so that she could collect $1 million in insurance proceeds from his death.  Linehan was a stripper who one co-worker said got big tips just by talking to men

There are a ton of other fascinating details in the case.  The husband apparently learned of the plot, changed the beneficiary in his policy, and sent a letter to his parents to be read if something "fishy" happened to him.  The letter said to make sure that Linehan was prosecuted and said that Carlin III and maybe even another suitor were involved.  Despite this letter, there wasn't enough evidence for prosecutors to charge Linehan, and she reinvented herself as a doctor's wife and mother over the next decade.

Recently, however, the cold-case unit interviewed Carlin's son, who said he saw his father using bleach to wash out a handgun (apparently soon after the husband's death).  The state thus brought murder charges against Linehan.  At trial, a former stripper friend testified that Linehan and she watched John Dahl's top-notch neo-noir movie "The Last Seduction," and that Linehan adored and wanted to emulate Linda Fiorentino's femme fatale character, who sedcuces and convices another man to kill her husband (although, I note, not to collect insurance proceeds).

The prosecutor thus wanted to play the movie "The Last Seduction" for the jury, claiming that Linehan copied the femme fatale's murder plan, but the judge refused to allow the jurors to see the movie.  Unsurpsingly, the judge found that the movie was inadmissible because there were too many dissimilarities between the movie and the alleged killing of the husband.

What interests me, though, is that the judge also said that the movie could be too disturbing to the jurors.  I find this to be a curious ruling.  Sure, "The Last Seduction" is rated R, and it has some sex and violence; however, I wouldn't say that the sex or violence in the movie is excessive.  It is similar to the sex and violence in Lawrence Kasdan's top-notch neo-noir movie "Body Heat;" in fact, many film critics have compared the two films and their femme fatales.

Interestingly, in State v. Plaskett, 27 P.3d 890 (D. Kan. 2001), the Supreme Court of Kansas affirmed a trial court's decision to allow the prosecution to show to the jury 9 to 10 minutes of the most salacious scenes of "Body Heat" and found that defense counsel's objection to the selection of the clips was quelled by the fact that the prosecution offered to show the whole movie to the jury if the isolated clips were too prejudicial (the case involved a man allegedly sexually assaulting a child while showing her "Body Heat"). 

I would agree with that ruling and find that, assuming a movie is relevant, it should be admissible unless it is unusually gruesome, repulsive, or horrifying, which is the same standard that Alaska courts have applied to autopsy phtographs of victims and their fatal wounds. See, e.g., Howell v. State, 917 P.2d 1202, 1212 (Alaska App. 1996).  I would think that it would be the rare R-rated movie (which anyone 17 and over can see and which those under 17 can see with an adult) that would fail this standard.         

-CM

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