Teaching Professional Responsibility Through Theater
48 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2020
Date Written: February 10, 2020
This article is about ethics-focused law school courses, co-taught with a theater director, in which students wrote, produced and performed in plays. The plays were about four men who, separately, were wrongfully convicted, spent decades in prison, and finally were released and exonerated, formally (two) or informally (two).
The common themes in these miscarriages of justice were that 1) unethical conduct of prosecutors (especially failures to disclose exculpatory evidence) and of defense counsel (especially incompetent representation) undermined the Rule of Law and produced wrongful convictions, and 2) conversely, that the ethical conduct of post-conviction lawyers and law students helped to partially vindicate the rights of those wrongfully convicted, but could not provide any real remedy for decades of wrongfully deprived freedom. In sharp contrast, the worst and best of the legal profession were on display.
We argue that reproducing these extraordinary stories as plays, with students playing the roles of prosecutors, defense counsel, defendants (with not only wrongful convictions but also decades of wrongful incarceration), family members, crime victims, and people in the affected communities, is a powerful way to teach both law students and public audiences about the direct connections between legal ethics rules and the Rule of Law. It teaches as well the ripple effects on many people and communities, not just the parties, of unethical lawyer behavior.
The students learned about legal ethics through in depth analysis of the actual case records, from pretrial motions through trial transcripts and appellate briefs (in the nature of ethics autopsies), and from the personal presentations in class by the exonerated men and their families. As important, the students learned about professional responsibility and irresponsibilities, from their immersion in the roles of the lawyers and “secondary” characters, like the affected families of the four men and the crime victims and their communities.
The students also learned about competence, including how to work collaboratively to develop and to tell stories, to appreciate cultural differences, to examine witnesses, and to deal with performance anxiety.
Because the men, all African Americans, were tried in 1968 (two), 1975, and 1983, the plays served as important points of comparison of criminal justice — criminal law and procedure — then and now. In this respect, the courses also were virtual laboratories in which to explore legal realism and critical legal theory, especially race theory; the true stories were powerful critiques of the romanticized, theoretical model of due process that underlies the formal criminal justice curricula.
Keywords: exonerated, wrongful convictions, clinical legal education, ethics, professional responsibility, law and theater
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