From Making a Murderer to To Kill a Mocking Bird, The Top Human Rights Lawyers on Our Screens

By Corallina Lopez Curzi, Writer 26 Jun 2017

The struggle for human rights is very real deal – and a tough one, as shown by the worldwide attack on human rights defenders. As well as making their cases in the courts of law, some have even made it as far as the big – and small – screens. 

We’ve already talked about some great human rights themed books and picked up a selection of human rights heroes and heroines in the literature. As human rights battles mostly take place in courts of justice, it only seems fair – pun intended – to celebrate lawyers championing our fundamental rights.

Dean Strang and Jerry Buting in Making a Murderer

Video Credit: Twitter / @strangandbuting

This pair were the criminal defence lawyers for Steven Avery, a man who served 18 years in prison for sexual assault and attempted murder before DNA evidence proved that he had not in fact committed these crimes. In a massive real-life plot twist, Avery was then accused of murdering a woman by the very same cops who had wrongfully convicted him the first time. He was ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment for that crime, while still maintaining his innocence

His story became well-known worldwide thanks to Netflix’s hit documentary Making a Murderer, which brought human rights and fair trial issues to the masses. It also turned Strand and Buting into popular heroes. They have been branded “modern-day Atticus Finches” (more on that below) and Strang in particular crushed hearts worldwide – even being praised as a sex-symbol and fashion icon!

Andrew Beckett and Joe Miller in Philadelphia

Image Credit: Giphy

In Hollywood’s famous 1993 movie Philadelphia, Andrew Beckett – played by Tom Hanks – is a gay and HIV positive lawyer who gets fired from his big law firm as a result of his diagnosis. Unable to find a lawyer willing to represent him, Beckett initially has to act as his own attorney until homophobic lawyer Joe Miller – played by Denzel Washington – decides to take on the case.

It’s a case he goes on to win too, after realising the parallels in discrimination suffered by Beckett as gay and HIV positive, and by himself as black. The movie is based on the real story of Geoffrey Bowers.

James Stamphill in Murder in the First 

Video Credit: Youtube / Warner Brothers

In 1995 American drama Murder in the First, public defender James Stamphill – played by Christian Slater – is an eager and idealistic young attorney defending Alcatraz prisoner Henri Young. Young, played by Kevin Bacon, is accused of murdering a fellow inmate. Stamphill, however, argues that it took place under extenuating circumstances, as his client had just spent over three years in solitary confinement that basically drove him mad.

By proving the inhumanity of harsh prison conditions plus years of isolation, and their detrimental effects on one’s mental health, Stamphill saves Young from the death penalty by having him condemned for involuntary manslaughter instead of first degree murder. The movie was inspired by Henri Young’s true story, also known as “the case that shut Alcatraz”.

Betty Anne Waters in Conviction

Image Credit: The Innocence Project

Betty Anne Waters was a single mother working as a waitress when her brother Kenny was wrongly convicted of murder in 1980.

She spent the next two decades putting herself through college and law school in order to be able to prove Kenny’s innocence, working tirelessly with the Innocence Project to bring about his exoneration in 2001. Her compelling story was turned into Hollywood movie Conviction, where she is played by Hilary Swank.

Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons

Erin Brockovich was an unemployed single mother of three with no legal training at all who, back in 1993, became a legal assistant and then almost single-handedly brought down a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply. She won a record-breaking $333m settlement.

Her story was made famous by the hit Steven Soderbergh movie starring Julia Roberts. While she wasn’t technically a lawyer, she did use the law to fight for social change and justice.

Ron Lax in The Devil’s Knot

Again, while Ron isn’t actually a lawyer, he was one of the defence investigators in the West Memphis Three case. This was a huge case back in the 1990s in which three young men were wrongly (or, at least, unfairly) convicted as child killers, and one that turned “from a lurid true-crime story into one of the biggest miscarriage of justice scandals in modern US history”.

After HBO’s Paradise Lost trilogy and Peter Jackson’s West of Memphis, the story got turned into the big Hollywood movie The Devil’s Knot, where Colin Firth plays the part of Ron Lax – depicting him as a man of the law deeply committed to ensuring that justice is carried out in a fair way.

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Featured Image via Clinica Estetico.. Other images as above

About The Author

Corallina Lopez Curzi Writer

Corallina holds a LLM (Roma3) and a MA in Human Rights (UCL). She has worked in NGOs and international organizations, focusing on migrant and refugee rights, as well as on foreigners in the criminal system and in immigration detention. All her views here are personal.

Corallina holds a LLM (Roma3) and a MA in Human Rights (UCL). She has worked in NGOs and international organizations, focusing on migrant and refugee rights, as well as on foreigners in the criminal system and in immigration detention. All her views here are personal.