Author, former judge dissects ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ film

Christie Mastric
The Mining Journal (Marquette)

Marquette — Would the “not guilty” verdict depicted in the book and movie “Anatomy of a Murder” hold up today?

Author and former Army Judge Advocate Eugene Milhizer gave a presentation on his book, “Dissecting Anatomy of a Murder,” recently at the Central U.P. and Northern Michigan University Archives, followed by a book signing.

In the book, Milhizer details the trial, book and movie based on one of the most famous criminal trials of the 20th century, which took place at the Marquette County Courthouse. He also explores the 1952 murder in Big Bay and community attitudes about the crime.

In this July 29, 2021, photo,  author and former Army Judge Advocate Eugene Milhizer talks about his book, "Dissecting Anatomy of a Murder," at the Central U.P. and Northern Michigan Archives in Marquette, Mich.

Leslie Warren, dean of Library and Instructional Support, which includes the NMU archives, introduced Milhizer, The Mining Journal of Marquette reports.

“I am greatly honored that he has used our Voelker collection to produce this book and share his analysis with all of us,” Warren said.

Milhizer wrote about “Anatomy of a Murder” author John Voelker, who served as defense counsel for the resulting trial and then adapted the courtroom drama into a best-selling and critically acclaimed novel. Milhizer also discussed the production of the groundbreaking film inspired by Voelker’s novel, directed by Otto Preminger.

Voelker wrote under the pen name Robert Traver.

“It talks about the novel. It talks about the film, but it talks about a lot more than that,” Milhizer said of his book.

Milhizer’s book considers several legal and ethical issues that the novel and film raised.

During his talk, he outlined the basic facts of the crime.

On July 31, 1952, Lt. Coleman Peterson walked into the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay and shot Maurice “Mike” Chenoweth after Peterson’s wife, Charlotte, claimed Chenoweth had raped her.

Peterson killed Chenoweth in front of a crowd, which posed a challenge to the defense.

“One of the things Voelker was faced with as a defense counsel is he didn’t have a lot of options because it was basically a public execution and there was only so much he could do to defend the lieutenant,” Milhizer said.

The trial, which began on Sept. 15, 1952, ended with Peterson being acquitted based on temporary insanity, or specifically, having an “irresistible impulse.”

“It was hard for him to argue a typical type of insanity because it is clear that Lt. Peterson was of sound mind before the shooting and after the shooting, so based on what an Army psychiatrist said and sort of Voelker’s deft leading of the defendant in the so-called lecture, which I treat in the book, this temporary insanity defense was raised and proved to be successful,” Milhizer said.

Would the “irresistible impulse” defense work today?

He said that in the 1960s, there was a more favorable attitude toward rehabilitation and criminal defendants’ civil rights and liberties. So, the Model Penal Code was created to be used and adopted by the states.

“They said that the insanity defense could be established either by cognitive disability – you don’t know right from wrong – or volitional disability – even if you know right from wrong you can’t control yourself. Irresistible impulse,” Milhizer said.

Then came the 1982 acquittal of John Hinckley, Jr., by reason of insanity, for attempting to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan.

That enraged the country and Congress, he said.

“So, now we have the federal insanity statute,” Milhizer said. “Not only does it place the burden on the defendant to prove he’s insane rather than the government to prove that he’s not insane, but it removes the ‘irresistible impulse’ as a defense, and many states have adopted that, both as a reaction to the Reagan assassination attempt and also, I think, a change in attitude about criminals and the insanity defense.”

As someone who’s both prosecuted and defended cases, Milhizer acknowledged being impressed by forensic experts but being skeptical of psychiatric experts.

He used the “Son of Sam” killer, David Berkowitz, as an example.

“He was examined by nine psychiatrists,” Milhizer said. “Three said he was insane, three said he wasn’t insane and three said they’re not sure. Now, I don’t know how you can call that science.”

When asked about a legal or ethical issue that was addressed in the movie that might be taught in a law school, he mentioned the “lecture” scene in which the defense attorney, Paul Biegler, gives advice to the defendant – a scene that’s treated extensively in the novel and the film.

“He’s got a client who committed a public execution, and he’s got to try to figure out some way to defend this guy,” Milhizer said. “He knows that the only way that he can defend this guy is the insanity defense.”

However, he pointed out that ethically, an attorney cannot tell a client to admit to insanity.

“You cannot suggest the defense to your client that way,” Milhizer said. “So, what he does, beautifully in the book and captured amazingly well in the movie, is how he sort of leads him on this journey where the client comes up with insanity himself.

“Now he’s got his defense, and he can go forward.”

Milhizer said he tried his “very best” to be fair to Voelker and present him as he truly was.

“I think it is a great story and one that is compelling for all sorts of reasons,” he said.