EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Friday, July 6, 2012

Oliver Stone, Savages, Conspiracy Theories, Natural Born Killers & The Admissibility Of Movies As Evidence

Today's release of "Savages" could mark the return of Oliver Stone. Since 1999's "Any Given Sunday" garnered solid reviews and box office receipts, America's favorite conspiracy theorist has struck out in the new millennium (besides a couple of decent documentaries). "World Trade Center" did OK critically and commercially but was clearly the red headed stepchild to "United 93." But "Alexander" was a disaster, "W." was utterly forgettable, and greed wasn't as good the second time around in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." But has any director had as good of a 4 year stretch as Stone's 1986-1989, with Salvador (my favorite of his films), PlatoonWall StreetTalk Radio, and Born on the Fourth of July? Those five films and other such as "JFK" and "Nixon" are a big reason why Oliver Stone is still part of the national discussion and part of many of our courts' opinions. But it was Stone's 1994 movie, "Natural Born Killers," that might have led to the most interesting opinion involving the filmmaker.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of court opinions that mention Oliver Stone rely upon his reputation as a conspiracy theorist, much like in the movie "Dave." In Hernandez v. Thaler, 440 Fed.Appx. 409 (5th Cir. 2011), defense counsel argued that a witness for the prosecution lied about the defendant having a swollen hand in the aftermath of a murder that he allegedly committed. During closing arguments, defense counsel called this "the magic swollen hand" (sort of like the "magic bullet" in "JFK") and argued

All of a sudden, everybody sees a swollen hand. Oh, there it is. Must have been from what happened out there. Really. You might think this is kind of Oliver Stone or conspiracy theories. Take a good look at Mary's statement, the one she gave here. Look at her handwriting. Look through all of them, it's the same. Same handwriting. Nothing changes. All of a sudden at the very end look at the different spelling that says "that was when I noticed his hand was swollen."

In Elliott v. Leavitt, 105 F.3d 174 (4th Cir. 1997), the Fourth Circuit asserted that

A skeptical look at police conduct is one thing, but the contention that the officers planted a gun on Elliott requires that courts embrace conspiracy theories of which Oliver Stone would be proud.

And here are some more:

-McFarlane v. Esquire Magazine, 74 F.3d 1296 (D.C. Cir. 1996) ("In a breathless and kaleidoscopic account rivaling an Oliver Stone movie....");

-Hutchinson v. Stanton, 994 F.2d 1076 (4th Cir. 1993) ("Plaintiffs alleged a two-county-wide election-rigging conspiracy worthy of an Oliver Stone screenplay.");

-Schellenbach v. S.E.C., 989 F.2d 907 (7th Cir. 1993) ("Schellenbach's arguments have an Oliver Stone quality to them that at times border on paranoia.");

-Rosenthal Collins Group, LLC v. Trading Technologies Intern., Inc., 2011 WL 722467 (N.D.Ill. 2011) ("TT provides no evidentiary support for its Oliver–Stone–esque theory that Walter Buist, a disinterested non-party, literally turned back the clock on his computer (a computer that TT examined thoroughly on no fewer than three occasions.");

-United States v. Gonzalez, 285 F.Supp.2d 357 (S.D.N.Y. 2003) ("My suggestion to Mr. Owens neither 'causes a dark stain on the integrity of the judicial system' nor should it give 'life to conspiracy theories of Oliver Stone proportions.'");

-PPC Enterprises, Inc. v. Texas City, Texas, 76 F.Supp.2d 750 (S.D.Tex. 1999) ("Plaintiffs' also pose an Oliver Stone-like conspiracy argument, which posits that League City has schemed with Texas City to eliminate all fireworks in Galveston County.");

-Kurker v. Kassler & Feuer, P.C., 1999 WL 33601320 (D.Mass. 1999) ("The Complaints are bereft of even the kind of quasi-factual asservations that might appeal to the credulity of an Oliver Stone....");

-Choate v. County of Orange, 103 Cal.Rptr.2d 339 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2000) ("This is a mind-boggling concept (the bigger the conspiracy, the less the proof), one worthy of Oliver Stone."); and

-State v. Deputy, 1999 WL 743921 (Del.Super. 1999) ("In ten of his grounds for relief, Deputy makes allegations of a vast conspiracy which if true would dwarf anything ever dreamed of by Oliver Stone.").

That takes me to Beasley v. State, 502 S.E.2d 235 (Ga. 1998), in which Ronnie Jack Beasley, Jr. was convicted of malice murder, armed robbery and theft by taking a motor vehicle. At trial,

The State introduced evidence that Beasley watched the movie "Natural Born Killers" 19 or 20 times; that he had said he wanted to be like the characters in the movie; that he and [his girlfriend] sometimes used the names of characters in the movie; and that he sometimes referred to himself as "the Natural." The movie itself was introduced into evidence and shown to the jury in its entirety. It depicts a violent murder, rape, kidnapping and prison mutiny.

After he was convicted, Beasley appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court improperly allowed for the movie to be shown to the jury, and the Supreme Court of Georgia quickly rejected that argument, finding that

In this case,...the jury may have made the permissible inference that Beasley was encouraged by the movie to commit a violent murder. After all, Beasley viewed the movie an extraordinary number of times and he identified with characters in the movie. Given these factors, we conclude that the movie was relevant to show Beasley's bent of mind.

Justice Fletcher dissented, however, initially noting that

In this case, the movie Natural Born Killers may be classified as both real and illustrative evidence. The actual tape of the movie is "real" evidence in that it is directly related to the crimes at trial. Witnesses testified that Beasley had watched the movie 19 or 20 times, bragged of duplicating the crimes of the fictional mass murderers, and imitated the film's self-proclaimed natural born killer by referring to his girlfriend as Mallory and shaving his head. Because of this relevant testimony, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the physical tape into evidence or in allowing testimony related to Beasley's fascination with the movie.

But Justice Fletcher then found that

In contrast to the actual tape, the contents of the movie are illustrative evidence in that the film tells a fictional story, which Beasley admired, of mass murderers who obtain celebrity status. Like the movie reenactments in Eiland and Pickren, the movie here presents the state's theory that Beasley killed Olin Miller as his petty imitation of Mickey Knox's crime spree. In the words of the state prosecutor, Beasley "did what was in that movie. Oh, they did a small time version of it. It wasn't killing everybody they saw, but that's exactly what they were doing....that's exactly the way they did things."

For Justice Fletcher, the basic question was whether the probative value of the movie was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. On the former front, Justice Fletcher determined that

the probative value of the film is questionable. At trial, the state offered the movie to prove motive. What is not clear from the record is whether the state contended that Beasley was seeking to imitate the murders committed in the movie or to emulate the celebrity status of the movie's mass murderers. If, as suggested by the testimony and closing arguments, the state presented the movie to show that Beasley was attempting a copycat killing, then the testimony of the murder was adequate and the motion picture added nothing except the visual image to the mental image already produced.

Perhaps because of the weakness of the state's rationale at trial, the majority opinion relies on a different purpose, concluding that the movie was relevant to show Beasley's bent of mind "to commit a violent murder."...Based on this broad reasoning, any book, movie, record, or television program that includes a crime similar to the one with which an accused is charged would be relevant to show that individual's bent toward criminal activity. Under this expansive test, reading the works of Nobel prize-winning authors like Toni Morrison and William Faulkner can become evidence that an accused had a "bent of mind" to commit murder. Because this rationale is simplistic and overreaching, I find it unpersuasive as a basis for allowing the jury to view the movie in this case.

The testimony at trial, moreover, was adequate to describe the movie's connection to Beasley and his crimes. The witnesses detailed Beasley's obsession with the movie, his boastful claims to be like the movie characters and kill everybody he met, and his symbolic efforts to imitate his fictional hero. It is unclear what critical evidence the moving pictures added to the state's case other than to become an "extra witness." As a additional witness, the film presented "evidence" to the jury of murder and mayhem that differed substantially from the reality of the crimes that the defendant was accused of committing. By using "bent of mind" as a rationale for the showing of a gruesome murder film, the majority is allowing a lower standard of relevancy and admissibility for fictional films than for video reenactments of the actual crime in question.

Meanwhile, Justice Fletcher found the danger of unfair prejudice to be unacceptably high:

Weighed against the movie's weak probative value is its prejudicial effect. First, the jury spent two hours watching a movie that was, at best, tangentially related to the accused's crimes, as well as being forced to view a garish and excessive story that those with strong sensibilities may not have chosen to see voluntarily. Second, given the power of the medium and the length of the film, there is a likelihood that the movie would mislead the jury into confusing the crimes of Mickey Knox with the crimes that Beasley was accused of committing. Even if the jury could separate the movie crimes from the murder of Olin Miller, the movie tends to obfuscate the issue of what Beasley did with what he said he intended to do.

Third, the potential for prejudice in this instance was enormous. The name of the movie, much less its portrayal of two mass murderers committing 52 murders, invites prejudice. No court would allow a jury to watch a film about the Holocaust as "evidence" in the trial of a person accused of killing a Jew, even if the defendant had delusions that he was Hitler. "[N]ot only is the danger that the jury may confuse art with reality particularly great, but the impressions generated by the evidence may prove particularly difficult to limit." In this case, the sensational account of 52 murders during a fictional three-month crime spree added little to Beasley's trial except possible confusion and unfair prejudice. Therefore, the jury should not have been allowed to view the movie.



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Its always great to see conspiracy news!

Posted by: Charles | Jul 12, 2012 10:12:44 AM

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