Guilt, Greed, and Furniture: Using Mel Brooks's The Twelve Chairs to Teach Dying Declarations

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Califoirnia Law Review Circuit


Nothing beats a good story. We understand our own lives through story. Whether relating the story of our day to friends or family, or reflecting on a lifetime spanning many years, humans use stories to help understand and make sense of our experiences of living in the world. In the legal arena, the best accepted theory explaining how jurors decide a case is the Story Model, which identifies story construction as the cognitive process central to juror decision making. And of course, we know that good lawyers have to be good storytellers (words are our tools, and our craft involves becoming master wordsmiths). What’s true in life, and in law, is also true in learning. Learning the law through the case method involves what James Boyd White describes as an “imaginative reconstruction of the process by which the text was made,” a process of reading a story and imagining oneself participating in its telling and re-telling.4 The process of teaching and learning statutory law (such as the Federal Rules of Evidence) in particular requires the use of stories. A skeletal outline of a hearsay exception only acquires meaning in the context of a story.

When I teach the dying declarations hearsay exception in my Evidence course, I always show the opening scene from Mel Brooks’ darkly comedic film, The Twelve Chairs. A film clip is a particularly dense piece of storytelling, in that it presents story information in a visually and aurally rich manner (including such varied aspects as images, colors, tone, soundtracks, special effects, edits, montage, etc.). Yet, we are able to take in and process a whole series of nuanced and complex messages in a film clip in a relatively efficient manner. Simply put, we are good at “reading” visual stories from television and film. Further, showing the excerpt from The Twelve Chairs not only is fun, it’s good learning pedagogy. This short scene enhances class discussion in three principal ways. First, the scene serves as an engaging mini-review of the elements of the hearsay exception for dying declarations. Second, it serves as a springboard for the class to think critically and articulate some unspoken assumptions underpinning the rationale for the rule (the short scene raises issues about our assumptions governing family dynamics, gender, class, politics, and religion, among other matters) and consider the possibility of drafting a different (and perhaps better) rule. Third, the nature of the example (a film clip, and a comedic one at that), surprises and delights the students who are used to the usually bleak and violent fact patterns in many evidence casebooks. Thus, their attention level is high and they are very engaged in the analysis. A more full discussion of each of these three aspects follows.

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