Is It Ethical For A Criminal Defendant To Take Acting Lessons Before Testifying?

Actors make great witnesses. Especially in movies...

Actors make great witnesses. Especially in movies…(and if you don’t know who this is and in what film classic, you have some cultural literacy to catch up on…)

This is a trial development I have never encountered before. Blogger Janni Allen, a former columnist for the South African Sunday Times, claims that a famous South African actor told her that he coached Oscar Pistorius before his histrionic testimony in court regarding the death of his girlfriend. Prosecutors have charged the famous “Blade Runner” with murder; he claims it was an accident. In his appearance on the stand, Pistorius wept and appeared overcome with grief and emotion.

For the sake of the discussion, let’s assume that Allen is correct, and that Pistorius took acting lessons. Is there anything unethical about a criminal defendant or anyone else who has to testify in court taking acting lessons in anticipation of the experience? Is there anything unethical about a lawyer directing a client or a witness to take acting lessons in advance of a court appearance?

I don’t think they are difficult questions. The answers are “No,” and “No.”

The skills of an actor are communications skills. Trial lawyer associations often offer their members seminars, taught by actors, on the use of acting techniques by lawyers in the courtroom, as part of their basic tools of persuasion. Eye contact. Dramatic pauses. How to use tones of voice and body language. The best courtroom lawyers are natural actors. Clarence Darrow, the iconic defense attorney of the Scopes and Leopold-Loeb trials, could weep on cue, and used the skill to move judges and jury members to sympathize with his often murderous clients. It is part an attorney’s duty of zealous representation, if his or her client is going to testy, to do everything possible to make sure that client is as believable, attractive, sympathetic and persuasive to the jury. Hiring an acting coach is unorthodox, but it makes sense. I wouldn’t do it—but then, I don’t have to. All attorneys instruct their clients about how to handle themselves on the stand, and I am an acting coach. Why should a defense attorney who doesn’t have my background not have access to the same expertise?

This does not mean that it is ethical for an attorney to help a client get training to lie more effectively. A lawyer isn’t permitted to assist a client in lying at all, or to  encourage or devise perjured testimony. Acting lessons to help a defendant, client or witness overcome nervousness, appear confident and honest, and to be as sympathetic and appealing as possible, however, are completely reasonable and ethical. But the client, now with some theatrical skills, must only use them to convey truth, and a lawyer must so instruct them

The acting lessons may not be wise, however, and the Pistorius episode illustrates why. The knowledge that a witness or defendant was coached by an actor may suggest to the jury an intent to deceive, and may cause a jury to discredit what may be completely truthful testimony, and honest emotion.


Source: Daily News , Daily Maverick

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24 thoughts on “Is It Ethical For A Criminal Defendant To Take Acting Lessons Before Testifying?

  1. Re: the photo. We saw the film a few months ago on DVD. She was absolutely marvelous. I’d never seen a Dietrich film before. Clearly, I’d been missing a lot.

    I do not believe that it’s unethical for a defendant to take acting lessons, though you are correct that a jury may become prejudicial if the fact is known to them.

    There are people who don’t have the ability to speak in public effectively under the best of circumstances. In the stressful atmosphere of a trial, a poor public speaker could find himself stuttering, not making eye contact or otherwise exhibiting body language that some people automatically interpret as lying. This obviously can have a detrimental affect on the defendant’s case.

    Then, of course, there are those who “grieve differently”. It’s my least favorite of the true-crime rationalizations. (A guy who’s out buying a mattress while his neighbors are combing the area for his missing wife is not “grieving differently”) However, I will acquiesce that some people are more comfortable emoting than others. A person who internalizes his grief could be considered cold to a jury. Teaching him or her to express themselves could make the difference between a guilty or not guilty verdict.

  2. To the extent that it makes juries cynical it’s causing harm. If I were to sit on a jury and I was aware that the defendant had had acting lessons I would wonder why they were necessary. I’d think of all the things you mentioned and probably a few others depending on the demeanor of the defendant. If acting lessons were to become a common thing or if it is already a common thing and people find out that it’s a common thing it’s a net loss of innocence.
    If Perry Mason were a current law show it would be cartoonish. I’m not sure his techniques ever worked, but they were believed at the time I suppose. Now, they’re so naive they’re laughable. I would think as people get used to the tricks and techniques they either factor them into their decisions or react against them.
    I’m not advocating for or against the ethics of acting lessons, just noting that stuff like that can backfire and can also create a culture of mistrust and skepticism.

    • A large part of the reason our legal systems have juries and testimony and not arbiters reading statements is because our system puts weight on the human interaction between lawyers, the jury, et al. Therefore, communication skills become key, and therefore people who are better communicators have a leg up in the court system. Society should despise that anyone gets a leg up in court on principle, so It follows logically that in the interests of the best defense, your lawyer urges you to become a better communicator, almost regardless of how that happens.

      I disregard the argument that if it weren’t necessary, he wouldn’t have taken them on its face. Juries are made up of people, who have biases, and being a sullen cunt on the stand, regardless of your innocence wouldn’t go over well.

    • So… you’re skeptical of all police testimony? They’re coached and practiced at testifying. It’s a regular part of their job. A defendant taking lessons is just evening up the game.

    • Well considering the make up of juries in the USA in general, anybody with any brains gets out of it. Celebrity trials draw a larger pool of jurors but considering the skills that attorneys use to weed out those jurors that might ask some pointed questions during the deliberations, cynicism is largely absent.

  3. There’s a significant difference between acting and merely developing communication skills.

    Acting is a communication skill with a specific purpose: to convey emotion that the actor isn’t feeling and create meaning for other people. An actor’s goal is to make the audience feel and even temporarily believe something that is contrary to fact. For instance, we can watch Ian McKellen playing Gandalf and, despite technically knowing Gandalf is fictional, feel like he’s a real person; we might even cry when he falls to his (apparent) death from the bridge of Khazad Dum.

    Of course taking acting lessons isn’t inherently unethical. But the very use of the word “acting” in this context justifies the suspicion of sketchy motives.

    If they’re training to do any *actual* acting on the witness stand, they’re putting the skill to a unethical purpose. On the witness stand, where concrete reality is the ideal, the only purpose for acting is deceit. A defendant taking acting lessons in preparation for a courtroom appearance is, by legitimate inference, training to deceive people.

    If that’s not really what Pistorius was trying for, then his advisers should have used a different word.

    • Has anyone in Pistorius’ camp said he had acting lessons? I just see someone accusing him of having acting lessons, or, more properly, having lessons from an actor. The word choice is coming from his attackers.

      I think that *actual* acting is not necessarily unethical. Acting includes expressing confidence and being sure of what you’re saying. When I’m being sincere in person, I’m often taken as being stone-faced. People think I’m hiding something. It’s just my natural look. Great for poker, but horrible for testifying. If I was on trial, I damn well would want help on expressing my sincerity on my face and with the timbre of my voice.

    • Wrong. Depends what kind of acting. Method acting concentrates on creating the emotions so the actor DOES feel them. Acting is not deception, not necessarily so. The techniques of acting would allow a stoic individual to demonstrate feelings that he would not ordinarily communicate. If Mike Dukakis had the training to act as if he were choked up at the thought of Kitty being murdered and raped, he might have been President. Would that have been “deceptive” ? Not if he loved Kitty, which he presumably does and did.

      • I still have to disagree. Even method acting is still pretense. Even if the actor feels that emotion, it was still purposefully created by artifice, and that’s my point. The actor enters a state of extreme empathy, but those emotions aren’t really his; he’s just wearing them for a while. Or if he is reliving his own personal grief, he’s still doing it for the purpose of pretending to be someone else.

        And even if the techniques of acting would allow a stoic individual to communicate emotion, it’s presumably his true feelings he’s communicating. Maybe the line between acting and actuality gets thin and kind of blurry, but there’s still a fundamental difference between really experiencing something and pretending to.

        Maybe some amount of acting is okay if you’re being asked to retell your own factual story; at least in that case it would presumably be service of the truth. But do the facts really demand acting? I still say there’s legitimate reason to consider acting as an automatically suspect activity if it happens on the witness stand. Context matters.

        As for Pistorius, if his enemies are using the mere accusation of acting lessons to undermine his credibility, that’s despicable. Still, he gets no sympathy from me. Even if he did act out of extreme fear, shooting through a closed door when you don’t really know who’s on the other side is unpardonably stupid. He’s either a brazen murderer or criminally negligent, and either way he belongs in jail. The only question is for how long.

        • The process is called being in the moment, and as a director who has had to calm down sobbing actors who have performed intense scenes that uncovered personal connections to their characters, I can say with certainty that those emotions are real.

          This also why so many actors are emotional wrecks.

        • Our system of justice is designed to err on the side of letting the guilty go free in order to ensure the innocent are not wrongfully convicted, while still ensuring the balance of the guilty are actually convicted to serve justice.

          If one more tool exists that protects the innocent, while maintaining the balance of punishing those who deserve it, then by all means, that’s the objective of our system.

          If Stoic Man A’s wife is Murdered, and he didn’t do it, he WILL BE suspect #1, until proven otherwise. Assuming there is not a good enough alibi or testimony showing he had nothing to do with it, he will be charged and tried. But, Stoic Man A’s apparent “lack of sadness”, isn’t going to help his case any. If acting lessons help keep him from being wrongfully convicted, then by all means, have at it, every little bit helps.

          For those who are truly guilty, I would assume that in the overwhelming majority of cases where the prosecution has a solid case beyond reasonable doubt, good acting won’t make that big of a difference.

          I do agree with you though, as a gut first reaction, taking acting lessons implies an intention to deceive.

          • For those who are truly guilty, I would assume that in the overwhelming majority of cases where the prosecution has a solid case beyond reasonable doubt, good acting won’t make that big of a difference.
            In the case of OP I really was hoping at first that the shooting was a stupid mistake made because of irrational fear.
            He’s a young, good-looking guy who made a success out of adversity – a winning Olympian.
            It’s also kind of hard to wrap your brain around the idea that he could lose it enough to fire four bullets into a women he only knew for three months.
            But I think that’s exactly what he did and the evidence supports that.
            No matter how much he cries and pukes.

    • I’m frequently frusterated at the common (erronius) assumption that acting = lying/deception. In actuality, it’s the most honest/open profession I can imagine. People who ‘fake it’ are quickly pegged as poor actors, and with good reason: A person who is pretending to be a welder will quickly be spotted by someone with experience at welding. A person who is pretending to be angry will quickly be spotted by someone with experience of being angry – and that’s everyone. 95% of any acting class will be on things like awareness of body positioning, posture, diction, dynamics of power, and listening. Terrific skills for anyone to have, and invaulable on the witness stand.

      Also, I detest method acting, and most the method actors I’ve met. They’re at the top of the list for those emotional problems you mentioned, Jack 🙂

  4. Based on some of the information about his personality and the way he treated people that has come out during the trial, I think Oscar was/is probably a very dislikeable character.
    Arrogant, selfish, even cruel. An immature, bad-tempered jackass who would turn everybody off the moment he opened his mouth.
    This had to be changed, for obvious reasons.

    I also think he genuinely feels bad that he killed her – NOW.
    Whether is it because he took her life or is only worried about his own; we may never know.
    I will be surprised if he is found not guilty.

  5. Absolutely ethical, especially when the attorney doing the questioning has been coached by professional actors (ahem). The defendant, an amateur to the courtroom, is going one-on-one with an attorney who has questioned hundreds, nay thousands of witnesses, and can be as manipulative, bullying, and lots of other things as the judge will allow. The defendant should do any preparation he likes, as long as he tells only the truth and the whole truth.

  6. I can’t say I like the idea… actions speak louder than words. When someone teaches you how to manipulate your behaviour that leaves me feeling uneasy. Actors adopt roles and pretend to be someone they are not – there is no guarantee a guilty party will not do the same. I fully support sanctioned court preparation, but acting? There should be no need, as the evidence should speak for itself. Furthermore, South Africa does not operate a jury system where people are swayed by emotion rather than reason. Judges there deal with much worse on a daily basis than a straightforward shooting (how many people lock the door to their en suite when they go to the bathroom?). Where do you draw the line between court preparation and acting.

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