“Trials are too important to be left up to juries” – Defense Jury Consultant Ranklin Fitch, Runaway Jury (2003)
When it comes to selecting a jury for any trial, anyone is subject for jury summons. Most people think negatively when summoned to court, but others have another mind set. In the case of Nicholas Easter (John Cusack) in the 2003 legal-thriller Runaway Jury, he gets granted with performing his civic duty, but with a hidden agenda. Even though Runaway Jury hyper-focuses on the importance of jury selection, the trial in the film blatantly ignores core principles of ethics within my major of journalism like impartiality, humanity, and accountability.
The film begins in New Orleans, Louisiana with scenes introducing a trader who was shot and killed at his workplace. His widow, Celeste Wood, inevitably sues the gun manufacturing company that sold the gun that killed her husband with help from attorney Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman). On the defense, Vicksburg Firearms hires specialized jury consultant Ranklin Fitch (Gene Hackman) who stops at nothing to get his ideal jury. He opens extremely invasive investigations to find out every detail about his potential candidates. Essentially, the CEOs pay him millions of dollars to buy a verdict in their favor. It becomes evident morals are completely thrown out the window as it is finally addressed from the prosecution’s jury consultant, “[Fitch] will know everything about their lives and strategically manipulate the jury selection process.”
Soon after we meet potential jury candidates, we meet the official 12 jurors that will be evaluating Celeste Wood v. Vicksburg Firearms. Against his plan, Easter joins Fitch’s jury with special appointment from the overseeing judge, Judge Frederick Harkin. Easter built his character originally as a happy go lucky person who tries to evade his jury responsibility. Later it becomes clear that Easter was more than who he was initially known. He begins gaining control of the entire jury using wit and influence during the voir dire process, which is to help the court and the lawyers determine which potential jurors harbor any biases on present any conflicts that make them inappropriate jurors to serve in the case a bar. He gains control of almost everyone in the jury except for Frank Herrera, an ex-marine who was clearly picked by Fitch to vote in favor of the defense.
The real conflict comes into play when Easter’s girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) shakes up the trial by offering a “Jury 4 Sale.” Her plan? Get the lawyers to pay $15 million and she will swing the vote in favor of which ever lawyer pays up. Fitch reluctantly pays Marlee her desired amount before finding out the verdict would go in the prosecution’s favor. Once Marlee has hold of the $15 million, Easter influences the jury to vote a guilty verdict for Vicksburg Firearms. To Rohr’s surprise, they finally won a case defeating major gun companies for the state of Louisiana. But why the cat and mouse games? Easter and his girlfriend wanted to change history after they themselves endured a school shooting in which Fitch was paid to select a jury that guaranteed his desired “not guilty” verdict. Therefore, they got him back where he least expected it: in the courtroom.
While this film might not be directly linked to ethics of journalism, they share similar core principles. Throughout the jury selection process, we must keep in mind that the ideal of an impartial jury is enshrined in the American ethos and is critical to the legitimacy of our system of justice. Clearly, fairness and impartiality determine the legitimacy of the legal situation at hand. With this simple statement, the film completely ignores this idea for the benefit of their own self-gain, like in the individual cases of Easter and Fitch. From my journalism background, I would heavily focus on this ideal as it is the crutch for justice and use it the way it was implemented. However, I am also not being bribed with 15 million dollars, but I digress.
Additionally, within my field of journalism we tend to strive for non-bias reports and facts. At the end of the day the main goal to keep in mind is objectivity is not always possible, and may not always be desirable, but impartial reporting builds trust and confidence. This further cements the importance of the relationship between the jurors and legal teams. Just like in the movie, if you do not maintain a good relationship with your jurors, you just might lose your case.
While the importance of impartiality reigns with superior importance, another core ethical factor the film disregards is the idea of humanity. Throughout the film, it is almost a never-ending chase to see who is going to win, even if lives get hurt. Fitch goes to any length to get what he wants and that is where he goes wrong. As a journalist, our goal is to be aware of impact and the words we use. None of the characters, except Rohr, cared about the impact of their decisions. This is something we are taught as journalists on our very first day of instruction, which goes to show lack of morals throughout the film.
However, one of the most important core principles is accountability, which this film has little to nothing of. Between Finch’s schemes to get his ideal jury, Easter’s motive to go against Finch, and Marlee’s bribery, accountability has exited the building. There is no sense of extreme consequences or remorse, except from prosecuting attorney Rohr. Rohr is the only one who holds himself accountable for his actions, even removing himself from the $15 million wager that can determine his desired guilty verdict. As the lead prosecuting attorney, Rohr realizes this jury selection provides a distinct advantage for these parties in that the prosecution or plaintiff can set the tone of the trial. Hence, the reason why he understood his position of power and accountability and ultimately won the case for his client.
Even though Runaway Jury might not be the exemplarily film for ethos in jury selection, it does remind you of the moral principles that matter. No matter what line of work you may be in, it’s important to maintain an impartial and honorable moral compass. As for my major, it further emphasizes why we practice moral principles in the first place: to be the most accurate we can be as journalists.
Liza Blake, a student in Jon Pfeiffer’s Spring 2019 Media Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the above essay in response to Runaway Jury (2003).