LAW AND POPULAR CULTURE
The Accused (1988)
Sarah Tobias is one of the few victims who got to tell her story. In The Accused (1988) Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) is raped by three men in a bar while several bystanders cheer on the assailants. Sarah’s sexual assault complaint is handled by Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis), an assistant district attorney who sees showing compassion to crime victims as an impediment to her principal task of winning at all costs in the courtroom. Winning this case appears extremely diffi cult. Sarah had been drinking and smoking marijuana the night of the assault, her live-in boyfriend was a drug dealer, and she had fl irted with one of her assailants before the assault. Because her questionable behavior and character severely weakens the prospects of victory, Kathryn pleabargains the case down to reckless endangerment. Later, Sarah is seriously hurt in a demolition derby-style encounter in a record store parking lot with one of the bystanders from the night of the assault. Kathryn visits Sarah in the hospital and has a change of heart. Realizing that her plea bargain cheated Sarah out of seeing justice done in a public courthouse, she decides to prosecute the bystanders for criminal solicitation, which is defi ned as behavior that “commands, induces, entreats or otherwise attempts to persuade another person to commit a felony.” The head district attorney is so convinced his assistant will lose such a case he says, “Drop it, you’ve got more important things to do.” But Kathryn forges ahead and, this time, the case goes to trial. The bystanders are convicted—but was justice done? The process portrays Sarah as victimized twice—by the rapists the fi rst time and the legal system the second. Such complaints are heard frequently about our legal system, especially in sexual assault cases. And what are the possible effects of such treatment? One possibility is that crimes go unreported. Many rapes, just like numerous other crimes, may never be prosecuted (Chapter 9). The non-reporting of crimes represents the beginning of the criminal justice system’s funneling process (Chapter 10). The Accused illustrates the importance of this metaphor as it shows the complexity of the decisions that victims, police, witnesses, district attorneys, lawyers, judges, and the jury face. Sarah’s decisions—from her choice to report the crime to her choice of dress and lifestyle—are all coldly scrutinized, as shown by the way she is treated by the nurses at the hospital, and the way her personal life becomes a factor in the case. The district attorney’s decision to offer a plea to the assailants (Chapter 13) appears to be based on her own beliefs about Sarah’s character and her uncertainty about winning a trial. Only after Sarah is victimized again does Kathryn experience a change of heart and decides to prosecute the bystanders. The fi lm uses the gritty and dark images of violent sexual assault and it accurately illustrates the oftenunpleasant preliminary stages of the criminal justice process that may actually discourage crime reporting. Unlike many victims, Sarah spoke out and ultimately got her day in court. She got to tell “her story.” After watching this movie, be prepared to answer the following questions:
1. How do the characters in The Accused deal with the discretion that is inherent in their jobs?
2. How can you use Jody Foster’s character as a vehicle for illustrating the reasons why victims are often frustrated when they learn about the funneling process?
3. If more victims were “given their day in court,” how would the criminal justice system change?
4. The Accused is actually based on a real case that took place in Massachusetts. But decades have past since that time. How has the criminal justice system changed in that time, especially with regard to the way sexual assaults are handled?