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.
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