"When I heard there was going to be a seventh game of the World Series, I thought 'Uch! That's it, no one will come,'" said novelist Joseph Wambaugh last night before the special screening at the Motion Picture Association of the movie "The Onion Field," which is based on a novel by Wambaugh.
But people did come -- among them five members of the House Judiciary Committee, Sen, Strom Thurmond (R.-S.C.) from the Senate Judiciary Committee, and several federal judges.
Members of both those committees and a variety of federal judges had been invited to a special screening of the movie, which deals with the true case of two men convicted of the murder of a police officer in southern California. Through deft defense maneuvering, the convicted men manage to drag out their case for seven years with trials and appeals.
"I didn't invent any of the bizarre, maniacal behavior you will see in the courts in this movie," Wambaugh, a police officer turned novelist who has written several novels about police work, told the group before the movie started. Wambaugh also wrote the screenplay.
The movie tells a fascinating tale of criminals abusing the court system and of the people on the other side -- the victims -- having the added agony of the drawn out legal process.
"It's a powerful, powerful thing," said David Bazelon, who is known as a liberal federal judge. "Having said that, I don't know what it proves. Certainly what happened there [in the movie] was a tragedy. But the movie is not that much about the trial."
Said businessman Milton Kronheim as he emerged from the movie, "For this I gave up a baseball game? I didn't like it. I had hopes it was going to be more of a story about a trial."
The movie spends much time looking at the effects of the crime -- the killing of a police officer -- on the officer's surviving partner.
"Maybe this picture will indicate to people that the administration of justice needs to be speeded up," said Strom Thurmond. "I'll do anything I can at the federal level. Most murder cases are tried at the state level." i
In fact, no one last night knew of specific ways to speed up trials like the one in the movie.
"I don't really think it was the judges and lawyers at fault," said Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. "There was a line in the movie that made them the heavies. But it was the system on trial. It works too imperfectly and we expect too much of it."