Last updated: 10.24.16
People who follow the news in the United States are not strangers to disturbing legal stories that often dominate the headlines. From the Casey Anthony trial that concluded last month, to the Scott Peterson verdict years before, and even the controversial O.J. Simpson murder case nearly 20 years ago, it’s often difficult to avoid the day’s most followed legal stories.
But there are thousands of legal stories that go unnoticed each year by much of the general public, or are nearly forgotten years later. In the four following examples, documentary film makers have exposed and revitalized those stories to create powerful documentary films discussing a variety of troubling legal issues.
We’ve compiled the trailers for the films Hot Coffee, Capturing the Friedmans, Deliver Us From Evil, and Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, along with short descriptions and reviews. Take a look, and let us know some of your favorite legal documenaries in the comments section, or on our Facebook page.
1. Hot Coffee
Hot Coffee begins with the notorious Liebeck v. McDonald’s, in which 78 year-old Stella Liebeck won a $2.7 million verdict from the fast food mega chain after it sold her scorching hot coffee which caused second and third degree burns over much of her body. The lawsuit became the instant poster child for frivolous lawsuits and a centerpiece in the case for tort reform here in America. It was also the basis for the Seinfeld hot coffee lawsuit episode. Hot Coffee has earned glowing reviews in major national publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post, but we’re going to focus on what law blogs have said about the Hot Coffee.
The documentary emphasizes that the attorneys defending McDonald’s capitalized on the fact that the American public is dumb, writes Staci Zaretsky for legal tabloid Above the Law. The defense spun the story that Liebeck was trying to bilk McDonalds out of money she didn’t deserve, but Zaretsky describes the images of Liebeck’s injury as “one of the grossest, most disgusting things I’ve ever seen.” The film uses this as a launching pad to document the “evils” that the tort reform movement has perpetrated against countless other Americans. “I legitimately felt bad for these people,” writes Zaretsky, “Hot Coffee made me want to go out and protest and do community service.”
While Hot Coffee is clearly a powerful legal documentary, it’s not free from criticism, writes Nick Farr for the Abnormal Use blog. After all, the film’s director Susan Saladoff is a trial lawyer herself, and has a clear interest in exposing the “evils” of the tort reform movement. “The larger the verdict for the plaintiff, the larger the payday for the trial lawyer,” writes Farr. “It is noble to stand up for those who may have been wronged, but don’t present yourself as a disinterested party and cloak yourself in the guise of pure altruism when doing it.”
2. Capturing the Friedmans
Capturing the Friedmans essentially tells the story of a normal American family gone horribly wrong, and the legal battle that followed. The family became the center of a massive media firestorm after police began investigating Arnold Friedman for charges of child molestation after discovering a large collection of child pornography at his home in Great Neck, New York. After initially denying the charges, Arnold Friedman pleaded guilty to sodomy and sexual abuse. He died in prison in 2005, leaving a $250,000 life insurance policy to his son Jesse, who left prison in 2001 after serving 13 years for the same crimes as his father. Capturing the Friedmans won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Despite Friedman’s guilty plea, the film unearths mounting evidence that he may have been wrongly convicted, which led veteran film reviewer Roger Ebert to write that it offered “an instructive lesson about the elusiveness of facts” in the American legal system. But despite this evidence, director Andrew Jarecki has caught criticism for keeping his own view of the Friedman debacle out of the film. In fact, Friedman’s case was very similar to multiple 1980s sex abuse convictions that were later proven to be false. “These spectacular allegations have since been exposed as utterly false,” write lawyers Harvey Silvergate and Carl Takei for Slate Magazine. “The convictions lacked physical evidence and relied on children’s testimony obtained by discredited investigative techniques.”
Jarecki seems to have gotten the message, and included additional evidence questioning the prosecution of Arnold and Jesse Friedman with the DVD release of the film.
3. Deliver Us From Evil
Deliver Us From Evil provides a portrait of Catholic priest Oliver O’Grady, who was convicted of molesting and raping more than two dozen children in Northern California in the 1980s and 1990s. O’Grady served seven years in prison for his crimes, but this 2006 award winning documentary film focuses on the Catholic Church’s policy of lying for priests in order to maintain a semblance of propriety. The film interviews victims of O’Grady’s abuse, and even the priest himself, who readily admits to being aroused by children and even declares callously “let bygones be bygones” of his crimes.
The trailer shows a prominent church Cardinal responding to the question “he had sexual urges toward a nine year old, is that cause to remove him from ministry” with a simple “no.” The film also takes issue with the role of gender when it comes to the acceptability of child abuse in the church, suggesting that priests are less likely to condemn molestation when it happens to girls, rather than boys. The trailer poignantly concludes with an attorney asking a Church big wig “do you think if a child were raped, that would be something that you would forget?” The priest’s attorney objects to the seemingly obvious question and instructs the witness not to answer.
4. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
This 2008 documentary, Dear Zachary, focuses on the ramifications of a legal system that fails to provide justice. After the charismatic future doctor Andrew Bagby was murdered, it wasn’t long before his former girlfriend was charged for the crime. It was enough time, however, for her to flee to Canada, leaving American courts unable to hold her accountable. The suspected murderer was pregnant with Bagby’s baby, which forced his parents to continue a civil relationship with the mother in order to stay connected to their only grandchild. Distraught, Bagby’s best friend – a filmmaker – decided to interview anyone who ever knew the victim, as a letter to the son he would never meet, Zachary.
The film was a critical success in the United States, and attracted best documentary nominations from the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Society of Professional Journalists, among others. The New York Times praised Dear Zachary as “at once a personal documentary about the murder of [the director’s] best friend and a polemical rant against the Canadian justice system for coddling a dangerous sociopath.” The film also targets the political nature of custody battles, which left Bagby’s parents unable to take responsible for their grandson, despite mounting evidence that his mother was dangerous and had possibly murdered the father.