May 9, 2012

Judge Agran takes students to the movies

To teach students about the law, Judge Martin Agran did not pull out a textbook and lecture when he spoke at Knox on May 4. Instead, he took them to the movies.

Agran, who has served as a circuit court judge in Cook County, used clips from classic trial films to illustrate what may first appear as complicated legal concepts — a technique he developed 10 years ago while trying to teach new judges about the ins and outs of the courtroom.

“Most people in our educational bracket and age bracket — most judges are over 40 — will concentrate on what you’re saying for approximately seven seconds,” Agran said. “So how do you keep their attention?”

The answer for Agran involved watching around 40 trial movies and finding scenes that would illustrate specific concepts. The first clip in his presentation, for example, came from the 1992 film “My Cousin Vinny” and demonstrated how an uncooperative witness can affect how evidence is perceived.

“Evidence includes all the means by which alleged facts are proved or disproved,” Agran said. “This includes eyewitnesses and their demeanor on the stand.”

To illustrate the concept of an argumentative question, Agran used scenes from “A Few Good Men,” in which Tom Cruise plays a young lawyer questioning a belligerent Army colonel, portrayed by Jack Nicholson. At several points, Cruise’s character seeks to provoke the colonel into arguing with him during questioning rather than asking for additional information; in other words, he poses argumentative questions.

Argumentative questions, also known as badgering the witness, were only one type of objection discussed by Agran. The vast array of intricacies governing when and about what to object is often dizzying for new lawyers, he said.

“There [are] a lot of rules when you try a case. It can be very complicated,” Agran said. “It’s all about experience, like everything else. … You start out knowing virtually nothing, and you work your way up.”

The complexities of the courtroom were perhaps best demonstrated by a scene from “I Am Sam,” in which Sean Penn plays a developmentally disabled father whose daughter, Lucy, is taken away from him by social workers. Since Penn’s character was able to understand what was going on in the courtroom, he was deemed mentally competent to be questioned, even as he struggled to convey his ideas.

“With a witness like Sean Penn is playing there, that becomes a real problem,” Agran said.

Sophomore Marya Slade found Agran’s approach to teaching the law engaging and helpful.

“He had a good example for everything he went over,” she said. “I thought it was cool.”

Junior Tanvi Madhusudanan seconded Slade’s sentiments, noting that Agran’s approach made very technical legal concepts interesting.

“I liked that he used movies,” she said. “It was a really good idea.”

Judge Agran’s talk was made possible through the efforts of Chair of the Board of Trustees Jan Koran ’71, her husband Steven Handler and the Knox Pre-Law Club.

Anna Meier

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