Legal Ethics Issues in the “Anatomy of a Murder” Movie

We have seen a brief identification of the main characters and a synopsis of the plot of the movie Anatomy of a Murder. Now let us examine the issues of legal ethics raised by the film.

The defense attorney, Paul Biegler (played by Jimmy Stewart) comes across as an earnest, straightforward, honest attorney who zealously defends the accused.

Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) &
Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara)

Yet Biegler comes close to crossing the lawyer’s ethical line of not suborning perjury when in the initial consultations with his client, Lt. Frederick Manion (played by Ben Gazzara), Biegler tells the client the only potential defense is insanity before the lawyer knows all the facts and then implicitly invites the client to develop a story of insanity.

Paul Biegler      (Jimmy Stewart)

During the trial, Biegler frequently appears to be an unskilled trial lawyer. He makes improper objections, such as “Now, he [Dancer, one of the prosecutors] cannot do that.” Biegler also frequently and knowingly asks improper questions, and the prosecution’s objections are sustained. His client, Manion, asks Biegler in an aside how the jury can forget something that the judge has stricken. Biegler says the jury cannot forget, which is precisely the reason why Biegler asked the improper question.

Another example of Biegler’s apparent inept performance as a defense lawyer is his failure to object to the examination of one witness by both prosecutors–District Attorney Mitch Lodwick (played by Brooks West) and Assistant Attorney General Claude Dancer (played by George C. Scott). Such “dual teaming” is clearly improper as a matter of trial practice. Soon thereafter, however, Biegler reveals his calculating courtroom manner when he raises that very objection while slyly arguing to the jury that it is unfair for a simple country lawyer like himself to face two legal giants with the same witness, and the court sustains Biegler’s objection. Who really is the courtroom giant?

Judge Weaver (Joseph Welch), Paul Biegler, Mitch Lodwik & Claude Dancer
Claude Dancer
(George C. Scott)

Biegler also reveals his skills as a trial lawyer when in a conference in chambers with Judge Weaver (played by Joseph Welch), Biegler initially plays dumb when Dancer asks if Biegler is familiar with a Michigan statute that allows the prosecution to have its psychiatrist examine an accused who is asserting the insanity defense. Dancer then comes across as a reasonable attorney when he suggests that Biegler just agree to the adverse examination. But Biegler is well aware of the statute when he tells the judge that a formal application is required for such an adverse examination, but that the time for such has passed. Dancer then is forced to abandon his request. Later during Biegler’s cross examination of the prosecution’s expert witness, Biegler forces the adverse expert to admit that he did not examine Manion whereas Manion’s expert had and that Manion’s expert, therefore, had a better basis for his opinion.

At the heart of the legal issues in the movie was the definition of insanity as a defense to criminal liability. At the time of the movie and today, the definition in most states in the U.S. is the M’Naghten rule: a person is insane if at the time of the act, he did not know what he was doing or did not know that what he was doing was wrong.

In a few states, on the other hand, insanity was defined as someone who could not control what he was doing because of a mental impairment even though he knew what he was doing was wrong. This was the so-called “irresistible impulse” test.

In the movie, Biegler assumes that Michigan follows the M’Naghten rule, but on the Saturday before the start of trail, he and his co-counsel, McCarthy, spend time in the county law library in the courthouse and find an old Michigan case that approves of the irresistible impulse rule. [1] This makes for a dramatic scene in the movie. But to conduct legal research on the key issue in a murder case only a few days before the start of trial really is skirting the edges of legal malpractice.

This legal issue becomes important in a conference in chambers with Judge Weaver (Welch) when the prosecution suggests that Manion change his plea to guilty after his expert psychiatrist testifies that Manion could have known right from wrong when he killed Quill. Biegler refuses this proposal while handing the judge the law book containing the Michigan case. Dancer then backs away from his idea, saying he remembers the case.

Dancer’s conduct raises another legal ethics problem. As an assistant state attorney general, he is brought into the case because of his expertise on the insanity issue. As such an expert and as a member of the Michigan attorney general’s office, he has to know that the Michigan Supreme Court had approved of the “irresistible impulse” test, as he indicates when he says he remembers the case. (How could he forget?) Yet Dancer makes the suggestion in chambers that Manion change his plea because his psychiatrist did not support the application of the M’Naghten test. Perhaps he thought he could trick his supposedly less-sophisticated adversary, Biegler, with this suggestion. But an attorney has an obligation not to knowingly misstate the law to the court, and by making the suggestion in chambers that is exactly what Dancer did. In Dancer’s defense, he could argue that he was not making a formal motion for a directed verdict that required a decision by the judge, but this distinction, in the author’s opinion, is insufficient to exempt a prosecutor, who also has obligations to justice.

The movie ends with an interesting twist that I will not reveal so as not to spoil the fun.

Buy or rent the DVD of the movie. Watch it. Enjoy the performances of great actors and the music of a great musician (Duke Ellington). And learn about some issues of legal ethics.

[1] The case they find in the law books in the movie is an actual case, People v. Durfee, 62 Mich. 487, 29 N.W. 109 (1886).

Joseph Welch After the Army-McCarthy Hearings

Joseph Welch’s participation in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 brought him national prominence. We have seen a summary of those hearings and his performance as the U.S. Army’s lawyer.

As a result, Welch became a celebrity. His career expanded to do new things.

Television Commentator

Welch appeared on various national television programs, most notably talking about the U.S. Constitution on the Omnibus program. A book of those commentaries was published.

Welch,The Constitution
Leonard Bernstein
Marian Anderson

In 1959 Welch provided commentary during intermissions of several televised concerts by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, then under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.  After Bernstein apparently had called Welch a “great American,” Welch responded, “I suspect you are a better judge of good music than you are of what could truly be called great Americans. Do not think for a moment, however, that it is not music to me to have you say of me what you do.”  Welch added that for him to accept money for being on a Christmas concert with Bernstein and soprano Marian Anderson was “just barely distinguishable from cheating.”

Correspondent with Groucho Marx

Groucho Marx

Welch’s television appearances had an impact on comedian Groucho Marx. In a serious article in TV Digest about the status of television programming, he said, “[I]t speaks very well of television and its audience that the man so constantly in demand for more TV appearances after the Army-McCarthy Hearings was not Senator McCarthy, but Joseph Welch.”

This article came to Welch’s attention, and he wrote to Groucho on his law firm’s letterhead that listed the names of all the 40 or so lawyers in the firm. Welch said that it had not been necessary to hire extra help “to hold at bay swarms of people anxious to get me to appear on television or in the movies.” He then expressed admiration for Groucho’s work and said it “must be wonderful to be (a) Rich, (b) Intelligent, and (c) Funny. I trust I list them in their correct order.”

Groucho responded that he was not rich, but “rich enough . . . to know that inflation is knocking hell out of what I have.”  He also said he was a “little frightened” by the imposing list of 40 lawyers on Welch’s law firm’s letterhead. Groucho said he had been sued over the years on most of the “minor charges—rape, larceny, embezzlement and parking in front of a fire plug,” but those law firms never had more than four lawyers. Groucho then asked a series of questions about life in such a large law firm.

Welch could not let this Marx missive go unnoticed. Welch told Groucho that he had misunderstood the letterhead: “All the names below the first line are the name of our professional witnesses. They hang around street corners and turn up unexpectedly as witnesses in all the automobile cases we try.”  Welch then answered Groucho’s questions about the firm:

  • Q: How do you get along in the office?
  • A:  By leaning on each other heavily and on our secretaries.
  • Q:  Do you trust each other? 
  • A:  In every area except money, property and women.
  • Q:  Does each one have a separate safe for his money?
  • A:  Yes, except I have so much money I have two safes.
  •  Q: Isn’t there some danger that you and one of your partners could both be in a courtroom, representing opposing clients?
  • A: Damned if there isn’t and every now and then somebody takes in a case where the client is against the client of another guy in this office and there is hell to pay and no foolin’.
  • Q: Do you have one community storage room for your briefcases? Or does each one sit on his own case?
  • A: I do not understand this question. I sit on what you sit on only I do more of it than you do.”

While Welch said he hoped that Groucho would visit him in Boston, Welch advised him to keep it quiet because “a highly numerous and vocal collection of people in Boston thought and still think that hanging is too good for me.”

Welch indeed matched wits with Groucho.

Movie Actor

In 1959 Welch became a movie actor when Director Otto Preminger picked him to play Judge Weaver, a Michigan trial-court judge, in the film, Anatomy of a Murder, which is still an entertaining movie.

The basic plot concerns an Army Lieutenant, Frederick Manion  (played by Ben Gazarra), who is accused of murdering a man, Barney Quill, for allegedly raping his beautiful wife, Laura Manion (played by Lee Remick). Manion’s lawyer, Paul Biegler (played by Jimmy Stewart), is assisted by his friend, Parnell McCarthy (played by Paul O’Connell), an alcoholic lawyer. They oppose the district attorney, Mitch Lodwick, and a state assistant attorney general, Claude Dancer (played by George C. Scott). Judge Weaver (Joseph Welch) presides over the trial. Several interesting issues of legal ethics are posed by the trial, which is a subject for another day.

Joseph Welch as Judge Weaver
Jimmy Stewart as Biegler
Lee Remick as Laura Manion
Duke Ellington & Jimmy Stewart

Filmed in a small, apparently all white, county seat in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the movie has an enjoyable digression. Duke Ellington, the great jazz musician, appears in one scene as Pie-Eye, a musician playing the piano with a black jazz band, at a roadhouse. Joining him on the piano is the defense attorney (Jimmy Stewart), who is a jazz aficionado.

The movie received many Oscar nominations, but lost “Best Picture” to Ben-Hur while Stewart lost “Best Actor” to Charlton Heston in the latter movie.

During the filming, Welch became a good friend of John Voelker, the author of the film script and of the  novel of the same title and a fellow attorney and a former member of the Michigan Supreme Court. They discussed the possibility of Voelker’s assisting Welch in writing an autobiography, but that never happened. In their extensive correspondence over the last 18 months of Welch’s life, Welch compared his wordsmithing as “counterfeit” coins to Voelker’s “complete access to, if not ownership of, the First National Bank of Words.”

Law Firm Partner

Welch’s graciousness, so evident in the Army-McCarthy hearings, also was present in Welch as a law firm partner.

In 1952 the Hale and Dorr law firm was faced with an issue of whether it should make a claim on the estate of a deceased partner who had paid himself more than he was entitled to, i.e., who had embezzled law firm funds. The firm adopted Welch’s proposal to make a claim for one-half the amount. Said Welch, “Let him pay for his choice of life style. But because of the nature of the partnership and because we truly liked him at his best, let us forgive a half.”

In addition, presumably in the late1950’s Welch wrote a letter to his partners at Hale and Dorr, “This is like my will to you. I have lived a successful, rewarding and happy life. I believe that I owe the firm money rather than visa-versa. In any event, since my second wife does not need any money, any moneys owing to me by the firm upon my death should be paid to you [the partners], not to my family.”

Welch also prepared what he called an “office will:” It stated, “All the rest and residue and remainder of me as a lawyer I leave to all those in Hale and Dorr that I have loved. To a very large degree they . . . have made me what I am. Such success as I have attained I owe largely to them. I have lived my whole professional life in an office free from grief, envy, and jealousy. Few lawyers have been so blessed in their associations continually all through life. For the serenely happy life I have had with all of you, I say a simple and inadequate thank you.” Welch concluded: “this is my office will and is undated. The identity of the typist is to remain a secret. It is not witnessed. But even so—no fooling. Joseph N. Welch.”

The author in his years as a practicing lawyer in large law firms has never heard of anything like these gracious comments from a partner to his or her fellow partners.


Welch’s first wife, Judith Lyndon Welch, died in 1956, and he was remarried to Agnes Rodgers Brown Welch.

Welch died on October 6, 1960, just weeks before his 70th birthday.