Murder most foul on both sides of The Pond

David Wurtzel reviews the law at work on stage in Inner Temple and out of the back of a Lincoln sedan in LA, Hollywood style…

MURDER MOST FOUL OR LIBEL MOST VILE,
Inner Temple, 28 and 29 March 2011
Sponsored by Charles Stanley

Responding to a request from their Treasurer, Lady Justice Hallett, for an historical play, Murder Most Foul or Libel Most Vile was performed in Inner Temple in March. This is a highly intelligent piece, packed with historic and political detail and which can best be enjoyed by those who know their early Elizabethan history well.


It imagines a private libel trial held at the Inn between two of the leading courtiers of the time: Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk; and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.  Leicester was an Inner Templar and Master of the Revels. This is the position currently held by Tom Shields QC, the co-author of the play along with Andrew Caldecott QC, who has a long pedigree of play writing for his Inn. 

The alleged libel is a doggerel commissioned by Norfolk which accuses Leicester, four years on, of murdering his wife, Amy Robsart, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase. A coroner’s verdict of accidental death did not put a stop to the rumours that she was in fact pushed. In the absence of what we would call forensic evidence, the trial—and the action of the play—consists of examining and cross examining three witnesses and the litigants. No one saw Amy die. The coroner was not unknown to the widower. The “evidence” consists of rumours, conjecture and Dudley’s track record as an absentee husband who did not even attend his wife’s funeral.  She was hardly cold in the ground before he started wooing the Queen.   

The staging is simple but dramatic. The cast is in sumptuous period costume, there are banners hanging in Hall, and two trumpeters in tabards provide the fanfares, including “The Arrival of the Judge”. In effect it is a reading though the clever use of teleprompters disguise the fact. The cast combines professional actors with Benchers, all of whom acquit themselves well. Mr. Justice Akenhead for Norfolk is the combative counsel; Nigel Pascoe QC is the more-in-sorrow-than-anger counsel, but both produce particularly moving speeches. 

The story is not short of complications. This is a small and incestuous world. Dudley was the brother-in-law of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey. Norfolk (later executed) was the Queen’s cousin through her beheaded mother. Everyone has done time in The Tower. As soon as Queen Mary died in November 1558, Dudley went straight to Elizabeth and became her Master of the Horse, after which his wife ceased to matter to him. In September 1560 Amy died. Norfolk had his own ideas for a husband for the new Queen, a Hapsburg. Tom Frederic was a wonderfully arrogant Norfolk and got most of the good lines: “I know my place, lofty though it may be”, “you will find that first generation Dukes come and go” and “my father invented the sonnet”.  Ben Mansfield as Dudley added swagger to arrogance, as the handsome athlete who expected the Queen to favour him. Veterans Miriam Margolyes as Amy’s maid and Jonathan Hyde as the Spanish Ambassador did not under-play their parts.  The trial is brought to a premature halt by the coup de theatre of the judge revealing “himself” to be the beautiful young Queen, reminding us that all these people were running the country when they are still in their twenties. She refuses to allow either man to win the case and makes it absolutely clear who is in charge. 

As the audience made its way towards the hall, we were offered baskets with yellow and purple ribbons, being the colours of the two litigants. Dudley or Howard? I was asked. “How can I choose, I haven’t heard the evidence yet,” I replied, which may not have been an Elizabethan attitude. This was a world of intrigue, patronage, tampered evidence, sudden death and a ruthlessness towards one’s opponents. Life is cheap and there is a clear hierarchy about who matters and who doesn’t. Which just about describes the world of the criminal courts of Los Angeles in Lincoln Lawyer.

The  “Lincoln” in this US courtroom drama does not refer to the 16th President but to the car in which  top criminal lawyer Mickey Haller is driven around. He looks immensely pleased with himself, as well he might. Haller is played by Matthew McConaughey, People magazine’s 2005 sexiest man alive. Years of doing romcom have taught him how to turn on the charm and everything (or nearly everything) Haller wants, he gets. As in the 1560s, this is a world in which nothing happens in a straightforward way. Palms are always crossed with money, favours are called in and even the prosecution serves fake disclosure (in the play, Sir Francis Walsingham significantly alters the date of a crucial letter, so this is an old tradition). Men like their liquor and they like hard liquor.

The car is Haller’s office. There is a nice woman who takes messages for him from her home and there is his own home—relatively modest but in the Hollywood hills with a great view and is the repository of old case files—but otherwise there is the Lincoln and there is Mickey Haller, moving around and greasing the wheels of justice. We first see him obtain a delay for a trial date on false grounds; he just wants more money out of the client.  The latter is a Hell’s Angel whose mates soon stop the Lincoln to find out the problem (news travels fast in LA). To get another  $10,000  Haller makes up a story. The biker hands over a conveniently filled envelope. Haller flips it a few times and pockets it.  “Don’t you want to count it?” “I already have”, he replies.  But he is not just a sleazy lawyer. He is a sleazy lawyer with a heart of gold. 

McConaughey turns in a terrific performance based in large part on his talent for smouldering. The only one to rival him is his client, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe). The two of them sit together during the trial as contrasting examples of well groomed good looks, but there is no contest. You know which character pays for his sex and which one does not.

Louis Roulet is a rich boy charged with GBH’ing a prostitute. We know immediately that he is guilty. First, he is cute. All of Haller’s deserving clients are ugly. Second, he is rich. His mother is even called Mary Windsor, and she is as grand as that sounds. In this genre, rich defendants are always guilty. That is the point of being rich:  you do bad things and then you pay others to get you off the hook. Poor folk can’t buy their way out of it so they have to be innocent. Just in case you haven’t got the point about Roulet, he calls homosexuals “faggots”. No one is homophobic except, of course, the police who cannot even think of anything original with which to taunt Haller: “How do you sleep at night?” one asks. Not that line again. 

Haller knows his client is guilty, and not just guilty of this offence. But he is his lawyer and legal professional privilege ties his hands. As in Murder Most Foul, the trial is stopped prematurely by the judge.  “Shut up, do you know how you have just ruined my trial?” he says to the District Attorney, which is less than Elizabethan but makes a similar point. But the plot has not stopped with the acquittal. In his final encounter with the Hell’s Angels, the bikers are in awe of Haller: “You shot your client’s mother?” one gasps, “Yes, but she shot me first,”Haller replies. How cool is that?

Struggling criminal barristers may find some of this quite attractive. Although the BSB is unlikely to allow you to practise from your car, you can always invest in a personalised number plate like Haller’s:  NTGUILTY will soon be snapped up, so move fast. Forget everything you learned at the BVC: leading questions are for examination in chief and open questions are for cross examination, not the other way around. Los Angeles lawyers never stop talking.

This was my first encounter with “re-cross”. The prosecution and the defence are always cutting deals. It is also useful to have the Hell’s Angels owe you a favour, especially when your ex-client needs sorting out: “I said the hospital, not the morgue!” Haller shouts as he leaves the hapless Roulet on the ground amidst flailing baseball bats. And that is before the cops get hold of him. ?

David Wurtzel is Counsel’s Consultant Editor

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.